Abbondanza! ( Abundance) This is what Spring is about. Although there are clear signs of its presence everywhere, people are so busy and used to live a day-by-day life that do not perceive that slight change between the seasons anymore. The days are longer and warmer, small delicate flowers peep out everywhere with their intoxicating scents, and at dusk the dark fields lit up with myriads of sparkling fireflies. Spring is my favorite season of all. It is just like taking off the heavy grey coat of Winter to finally open up to the beautiful season. Supermarkets and globalization have surely played their vicious role in this numbness of the senses. Everything is always available, no matter the season or the place. Weird how people do not often recognize the difference between being available and being in season.
In Tuscany we still call the first new vegetables primizie, firstfruits, and the message is very clear, Winter is over. Spring gently opens the doors of the kitchen invading it with its intense perfumes and light recipes featuring new, tender and succulent vegetables. Outdoor markets bustle with life again, like a ritual that repeats every year. Busy vendors and busy customers moving around like ants, brown bags full of leafy vegetables and waxy new potatoes; stalls proudly showing baskets full of shimmering red strawberries, bright colorful produce and what we all wait for. An example would be the incredible meaty bundles of asparagus, all perfectly stacked like in a portrait. This is what I see when I walk through the market these days. Juicy, thick Green Asparagus from our Tuscan valleys, delicate and White from Bassano del Grappa (Veneto), Violet and crunchy from Albenga (Liguria) and Wild, pungent and thin like pencils, from everywhere in the wild.Asparagus are all different in shape, color and flavor, but equally addictive. Elegant and easy to prepare, luxurious for someone, asparagus represent one of the important rites of spring, if not the most important. Pompeei, where everything meant richness, luxury, and “impossible that becomes possible”, proudly shows asparagus in its mosaics and frescoes, a clear sign of how this unique green shoot was welcomed and celebrated. In the kitchens of ancient Pompeei and Rome the asparagus was exalted as high as spices, truffles and oysters. As a consequence, the gluttonous Romans, had ships dedicated to the transportation of asparagus from different areas of the Mediterranean. And guess the name of the ships? Asparagus! Pliny the Elder dedicated his life’s research to developing a way to grow a meatier variety. Did he succeed? He surely contributed to what we now buy at the market.
Rivers of ink have run throughout the ancient times, all celebrating this potent but harmless spear. Galen of Pergamum, Apicius, Theophrastus of Eresus, Cato…they all considered asparagus worth of their attention and meticulously described its cultivation, medicinal uses, and preparations in the kitchen. The journey of this delectable shoot, member of the Liliaceae family (like onions and garlic) started in Mesopotamia, in what was known as the Eden Valley. Weird to say, thanks to the many wars, it reached Greece, Rome and eventually the entire world. Cultivated in the whole Mediterranean basin, asparagus became the oddly shaped vegetable everyone wanted, ready to pay big bucks for it. Like all the forbidden fruits, also asparagus was preceded by the myth that it was aphrodisiac. True or false, that myth gained it major stardom. For sure we must agree on one thing! our pee will smell! LOL. Kidding aside, 2000 or more years later, the asparagus still maintains this record and it is quite the extravagant and perfect element to be served as side dish or garnish.
Pappardelle with asparagus sauce
Pappardelle! Its name derives from the verb pappare which means to gorge. I am sure you didn’t know this. These glorious and appetizing Tuscan large noodles, are the perfect match for this seasonal sauce. Give it a try!
1 large white onion, peeled and finely sliced
1 lb fresh asparagus, stems peeled
6 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp fresh catnip ( catmint or nepeta)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to your taste
4 oz Grated Parmigiano Reggiano plus more for dusting
1 lb fresh egg Pappardelle
Pour the extra virgin in a large skillet and add the sliced onions. Cook over low heat until onions are translucent, adding a touch of hot water and stirring very frequently. Meanwhile blanch the asparagus in a tall pot, then slice the stems thinly, reserving all the tips for later. Add the sliced asparagus to the onion base and add the catnip. Pour in a ladleful of hot water and cook until asparagus are very soft. Transfer to a food processor or thermomix and puree into a cream. Transfer the sauce back into the skillet and season with salt and pepper. Cook the pappardelle in salted boiling water for about 3 minutes if they are fresh, or according to the directions on the package if they are dry. Strain the pappardelle when they are al dente and immediately add them to the sauce. Combine well adding Parmigiano Reggiano and the blanched asparagus tips. Add a touch of the pasta cooking water for a creamier texture. Dust with more cheese and a touch of freshly ground black pepper and serve hot.