Few things evoke the advent of spring as clearly as bunches of fresh asparagus standing in formation in greengrocer’s stalls, their brilliant green just the antidote for winter-weary cooks looking for fresh inspiration.
Asparagus is a vegetable with a long history: the ancient cookbook by Apicius, which dates back to the third century, AD includes a recipe for asparagus. It was cultivated by Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, who ate it fresh in season and stored it dry for use during the winter months. They also recognized its medicinal properties, using it to relieve toothaches and prevent bee stings. Asparagus contains substances that act as a diuretic, and it has a high fiber content. Low in calories, it contains no fat and is a good source of folic acid and potassium.
Preparing asparagus for cooking is easy: wash the spears, and while holding them in one hand, bend them with the other and they will snap off at just the right point, leaving you with the most tender part. The tougher, woodier part can be discarded or peeled and used in soups.
Hunting wild asparagus, which can be found for about four weeks, from May into early June, is a Tuscan pastime. Botanically speaking, it’s not really asparagus, but a member of the lily family, yet these tiny spears look and taste the same. They can be found in wooded areas, especially around pine forests, and they are usually nestled under and around a feathery-type wild growth that resembles wild fennel foliage. The tiny spears shoot straight up, one by one, and they are easy to snap off from their tougher bottom. Wild asparagus is delicious. Its flavor is more intense than the cultivated variety, which makes it a good choice for use in omelets or cheese torts because it can hold its own against other strong flavors. To prepare it, clean the asparagus, snap off the tough bottoms, cook for less than a minute in a small quantity of boiling water either to serve with butter or oil or to use in other recipes.
Here are a few very easy recipes to bring this breath of spring to your table with very little effort. Buon appetito!
Saucepan or steamer asparagus
Steam the asparagus in an asparagus steamer, a contraption that allows the spears to stand on end while they cook, or lay them flat on a vegetable steamer. You can also use a saucepan with a small quantity of boiling water. Fresh asparagus will be tender, but still crisp, in about 5 to 8 minutes. It is very good topped with melted butter, hollandaise sauce or lemon butter (add a little lemon juice to the butter as it is melting in a pan).
Oven-roasted asparagus with balsamic vinegar (for 6)
800 grams (about 1 ¾ pounds) asparagus
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper
3 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 220C/425F. Wash the asparagus and snap off the tough ends. Arrange in a baking dish and sprinkle with the olive oil, salt and pepper. Toss well to coat all the spears. Bake, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes, until they are lightly browned. Remove from the oven, drizzle them with balsamic vinegar and serve.
Asparagus and taleggio cheese torte (for 8)
1 pasta sfoglia (prepared pie crust)
800 grams (about 1 ¾ pounds) asparagus
400 grams (about 14 ounces) taleggio or other mild cheese
175 ml (3/4 cup) milk
175 ml (3/4 cup) cream
50 grams (1/4 cup) grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
Wash the asparagus and cook in boiling salted water. When they are done, cool them in cold water, drain and cut into pieces, reserving a few spears for garnish.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180C/350F and arrange the prepared piecrust in a large torte pan. In a bowl, beat the eggs well and then add the milk, cream, grated cheese, salt and pepper. Assemble the tort: into the piecrust, scatter the taleggio cheese, which has been cut into small cubes, followed by the chopped asparagus; pour the egg and milk mixture over all. Bake for 30 minutes. Garnish with the reserved asparagus spears. This torte is delicious right out of the oven, but it is also very tasty at room temperature, a great dish to bring to a buffet party.
Pasta with asparagus and fresh tomatoes (for 4)
350 grams (about 12 ounces) pasta such as penne
600 grams (about 1 ½ pounds) asparagus
300 grams (about ¾ pound) fresh tomatoes, peeled, de-seeded, and cut into small dice
3 cloves garlic, peeled and diced
4 Tbsp. basil oil (see note)
4 Tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper
Wash the asparagus and cook in boiling salted water, reserving the water you use to cook the asparagus to cook the pasta. Cool asparagus in cold water, drain and cut into pieces.
Cook the pasta in the asparagus water, adding more water so the amount is sufficient for boiling pasta. Just before the pasta is done, in a large pan, heat the olive oil and add the garlic, tomatoes, asparagus, salt and pepper. Sauté for a few minutes, turn up the heat and add the cooked and drained pasta. Stir gently for a moment or two to blend everything well, remove from heat and serve, drizzling a bit of basil oil over each serving.
Basil oil: In a blender, mix fresh basil, sea salt and a little olive oil to make a fine, liquid paste. Strain the mixture into a glass jar and slowly add more olive oil to dilute. Cover tightly and store in the refrigerator.