It is asparagus season both here and in Italy, so I’ve been reading and cooking a lot with it lately. The first shoots of the season are even appearing up here in the cold north woods of Maine.
I included asparagus in a couple of recent posts, where I added it to a pasta, Pasta alla Carbonara con Asparagi, and a Spring Oat Risotto. This post is dedicated to the vegetable itself, and how it would be traditionally served in Italy.
In Northeastern Italy, and in fact throughout continental northwestern Europe, the most prized asparagus is white. This is less bitter, and much more tender that our green asparagus. The freshness of the asparagus is highly prized, and you don’t see it exported much outside of the region. The asparagus season is short, and you will see it make it’s way into many dishes during its short growing season.
The traditional way of preparing the asparagus in Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, is to gather a few stalks together, tie them in bunches, and blanch them vertically in a tall pot. The water level should reach just below the tips, allowing the tips, which have the finest texture and the most delicate flavor of the plant, to steam rather than boil.
To cook the asparagus:
2 lbs. asparagus, woody ends trimmed and peeled if larger than your pinky finger
Tie the asparagus stalks into small bundles of 5-7 stalks each. Stand them upright in a tall, narrow pan. If you don’t have a pan narrow enough, fill the space with something that will help hold the asparagus upright. I used a few mason jars. Fill the pan with water, until the level of water is just below the tips of the asparagus stalks. Remove the stalks from the pot, place the pot on the stove and bring to a simmer.
Salt the water, then place the bundled stalks upright in the hot water. Simmer until bright green and tender, about 8 minutes, but this will vary depending upon the thickness of the stalks.
Remove the stalks from the water, cut apart the bundles, and serve with one of the following sauces.
Some variations of this technique flavor the blanching water with butter, sugar and white wine.
The classic pairing with asparagus is egg. In France, you may serve these with a Hollandaise sauce. In Italy, I’ve found a variety of different preparations which I am sharing here.
Asparagi con Uova
1 egg per person
Extra virgin olive oil
Hard boil the eggs. My method is to place the eggs in a small saucepan, fill with water, and bring to a low boil. Simmer the eggs for 12 minutes.
Shell the eggs, cut lengthwise into quarters, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and serve. Traditionally, one would mash up the yolk of the eggs with a bit of olive oil, and enjoy with the asparagus.
This next recipe, from La Cucina – The Regional Cooking of Italy, by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, makes a sauce from the hard boiled eggs, a bit more elegant of a presentation. It is a recipe from the Veneto, meant to be served with the Asparagi di Bassano, the sublime white asparagus from one of our favorite stops on our Italiaoutdoors Food and Wine bike tours.
Asparagi con Salsa di Uova Sode
3 large hard boiled eggs, shells removed, cut in half
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 salt crusted anchovy filets, finely chopped
1 tbsp capers, rinsed and finely chopped
Salt and pepper
Remove the yolks from the eggs. Press the yolks through a sieve into a small bowl. Stir in the lemon juice and then, stirring constantly, slowly drizzle in as much olive oil as necessary to obtain a somewhat fluid sauce. This probably will not require all of the olive oil.
Finely chop the egg whites. Add to the yolks, along with the anchovy and capers. Stir to combine. Season with pepper, taste, and adjust seasoning by adding lemon juice or salt as needed. Serve with the asparagus.
This final sauce I’ve translated from a book on classic Dolomite recipes interpreted by a few Michelin star chefs in the region. Here, a very similar sauce is made from hard boiled eggs, this one is flavored with mustard and water, rather than anchovies and capers. I haven’t tried this one yet, but thought I’d share it anyway, to complete the set!
Asparagi con Salsa Bolzanina
1 teaspoon mustard
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons hot broth or water
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced chives
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons grated cheese, such as a grana.
Boil the eggs for 7 minutes, cool, then peel and separate the yolks from the whites. In a small bowl, mix the yolks with the mustard, vinegar, and broth or water. Add the oil slowly, stirring constantly. Finely chop the egg whites, and add them to the yolks. Season with salt and pepper, and add the minced chives.
Place the asparagi on serving plates, drizzle with the melted butter and sprinkle with the grate cheese. Top with the Salsa Bolzanina and serve, accompanied by speck or prosciutto.