madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


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asparagus 101

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spring on the plate: soft scrambled eggs with fragrant wild asparagus

With all the running around, worries and excitement about the new house I forgot to post my April article in The American in Italia magazine featuring another of my favorite recipes, Parmesan and asparagus eggs.

Please remember that if you don’t have wild asparagus or the season is over, you need to choose fairly thin green asparagus and use them as soon as possible so they stay fresh and crunchy. Remove the woody part of the stem, toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil per 1/2 pound asparagus and broil them for 15-20 min until just cooked through and slightly charred.Remove from under the grill, add some crushed garlic, cover and let them infuse for at least 10 min.

I use this method of preparation as a lovely side dish and for most of my asparagus recipes like risotto, spaghetti, and beef. I also chop them, mix them with equal weight of fresh ricotta and a couple of tablespoon grated Parmesan to use as a filling for ravioli or as a spread on crostini.

The picture below has nothing to do with the recipe. Its an Apsara, a heavenly dancer I got to know about during our winter trip in Cambodia. It’s just that I have this crazy name association between their name and my favorite vegetable. It’s becoming an obsession, but I promise, no more asparagus until next year!

An Apsara, a heavenly dancer of Hindu Mithology


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beef straccetti with asparagus and spring onions

Umbria Agricultural Fair: majestic Chianina bull, an ancient breed from Central Italy wheighing up to 1700 kg/ 3700 lb and up to 1.8 m / 6 feet tall

STRACCETTI DI MANZO CON ASPARAGI.

Spring, spring, spring! Quick, quick, quick! Who wants to be inside with this beautiful weather? Who wants a complicated dinner when there’s lavender to prune, petunias to plant, dry leaves to sweep?

I love this dish, it’s light and juicy, it has the crunch and aroma of my favorite vegetables and it’s ready in 10 min. The term “straccetti” means small rags, referring to the messy shape of the thin strips of beef. I use carpaccio from Chianina, the powerful cows raised by the Etruscans and Romans 2000 years ago and respected ever since for beauty and quality.

Serve the straccetti on a bed of boiled grains  and you will have a wholesome Italian stir fry. Here I buy a mixture of farro, barley and brown rice which is parboiled and cooks in only 12 min.

Recipe

  • 200 gr. / 6 oz very thinly sliced beef
  • 2 large garlic cloves
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 350 gr / 2/3 lb green asparagus, woody stalks removed
  • 3-4 spring onions sliced

I hope you are lucky and you have a gorgeous spring out there. Should you be able to tear yourself from all that beauty, cut the meat slices into strips, place them in a bowl, add the lemon juice, one crushed garlic clove, two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, toss to distribute the marinade and set aside. Refrigerate if you plan to marinade for more than one hour.

Clean the asparagus, toss them with one tablespoon of EVO oil and broil under a grill until just beginning to char but still bright green. Take out of the oven, add one finely minced clove of garlic and cover to infuse.

Now you can go outside and sit on your balcony or plant the petunias. When is almost time for dinner, bring the meat at room temperature and cut the asparagus in 5 cm / 2 inch long pieces. Slice the spring onions and soften them in a tiny bit of EVO oil, increase the heat to very high, add the beef strips  -marinade and all – and stir vigorously until just starting to color. Add the asparagus and their juices and stir some more until just warm. Serve immediately, it’s for 2-3 gardeners.

so good, so easy.


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spaghetti con asparagi

wild asparagus, a life changing experience

SPAGHETTI WITH (WILD) ASPARAGUS

Foraging is all the rage nowadays, but Italians have never stopped these sort of primitive habits.

My father has never made a walk for the sake of it in his entire life. He actually drives to my aunt’s house  300 mt away.  For a bunch of wild asparagus however, at 77 he still challenges the Umbrian slopes and the occasional viper. Viper? If you thought we had a quiet life up in the Assisi hills, read my friend Rebecca’s story about picking wild asparagus.

Tasting wild asparagus is a life changing experience and per se enough of a motivation to come to Italy in the spring. These fragrant strips of green are in the league of foods for the gods, like truffle or aged balsamic.

As all things intensely aromatic they need minimal manipulation and condiments. If you don’t have wild asparagus, take thin green cultivated asparagus. Just remember that your asparagus should still be green when you eat them. Please don’t overcook them to brown sadness. In order to succeed with this very simple recipe you need really fresh asparagus, fruity extra virgin olive oil and freshly grated Parmesan.

Recipe

  • 100 gr /3 oz wild asparagus or 300 gr /10 oz cultivated ones, cleaned and washed
  • 1 large garlic clove, very finely chopped
  • 1 small chili pepper, thinly sliced
  • 3-4 tablespoons EVO oil
  • 2-3 tablespoon grated parmesan
  • 350 gr /12 oz spaghetti

a) If using cultivated asparagus grill them in a little olive oil, infuse with garlic and chop as explained for risotto . Transfer them in a pan large enough to hold all the pasta you are cooking.

b) If using wild asparagus cut them in 2 cm/ 1 inch long pieces. In the above large pan, saute the garlic in 2 tablespoon olive oil until fragrant, about 30 sec. Add the asparagus and cover with water. Increase heat to high and cook stirring occasionally, about 6 or 7 min. By the time the water has boiled away the asparagus will be soft but still bright green.

At this point you have garlic infused asparagus, add the sliced chili pepper, cover and reserve.

To cook and sauce the spaghetti to perfection, please follow this method carefully:

While the asparagus are cooking, bring a 5 liter/ 5 quart pan of water to the boil. Add two heaping tablespoons of salt and bring to the boil again. The water has to be plenty and as salty as the sea otherwise the pasta will be bland.

Cook good quality spaghetti according to package instructions until just al dente. Drain and reserve at least 1/4 cup of the pasta water.

Transfer the pasta in the pan which holds the asparagus and turn the heat on high. Stir quickly and when the sauce is blended into the pasta add the cheese and half of the reserved cooking water. Stir again. The hot water will melt the cheese and will bind the condiment  so that all the flavor will be absorbed into the pasta.Use more water if the pasta looks too dry. You can also add a couple of tablespoon of cream. Drizzle with one or two additional tablespoons of  olive oil.

Now run to the table and eat it immediately, wonderfully moist, fragrant and let me say it, beautiful.

Serves 3-4


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risotto con asparagi e pancetta

risotto with saffron, pancetta and green asparagus

Ask 2 Italians what’s the correct way to prepare pasta. You will get the same story from both: al dente, toss with sauce, serve piping hot. Ask two Italians how to make a risotto. You will get 2 stories. Ask 4 of them, you will get 4 stories.  Stir, don’t stir. Use only butter, oil’s forbidden. No! olive oil’s  OK. Condiments at the beginning, no, at the end. Rest, don’t rest. Finish with cream? No cold butter! Vialone? Arborio? Carnaroli?

I am a “non native” risotto eater. They don’t make risotto in Umbria, so I can’t tell you how my grandma made it. Nor my mum who – being Sicilian and adverse to creamy dishes –  did not like it. I  also happen to be fond of dishes full of flavor, light in texture and calories and made with minimal attendance.

So if you like those stodgy concoctions obtained by beating the life out of the poor grains until they disintegrate and then cemented by extravagant amounts of cheese and butter, please read no further.

Here are my own fundamental rules:

1)  Good quality risotto rice. I prefer Carnaroli which has a nutty taste and does not overcook easily. Arborio and Vialone Nano are also good but I have never found a non-Italian rice that will work for a risotto.

2) Good quality stock, bought, canned, homemade, you choose but nothing with that MSG taste will do

3) I use a large heavy-bottomed pan over low heat. The rice has to be in a thin layer all the time so the grains cook slowly at the same temperature. This way I only stir when I add the liquid and then let it sweetly simmer until most of the stock is evaporated. Meanwhile I have a life.

4) I cook condiments – i.e. vegetables, meat or seafood – separately and add them when the rice is almost ready. Then I sprinkle some herbs if the recipe needs it.

Recipe

  • 30 gr. / 1 ounce pancetta cut into tiny strips
  • 400 gr/ 1 pound green asparagus
  • 1 garlic clove
  • a few strands of saffron
  • 1 lt / 5 cups low-salt chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 tablespoon butter or EVO oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 cups arborio, vialone nano or carnaroli rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Cook the pancetta in small nonstick skillet until translucent. Add the saffron strands to 2 tablespoon of  broth and let it soak. Trim asparagus, toss with one tablespoon EVO oil and broil/grill until just tender. Add one garlic clove finely chopped and cover to infuse for at least  5 min. Chop the garlic infused asparagus in 2 cm /1 inch pieces, cover again and reserve.

Risotto will have a completely different taste is made with butter or olive oil. Butter gives a richer and creamier texture. Olive oil is more gentle with delicate condiments like spring vegetables and seafood.

Add rice and stir 1 minute. Add wine and cook until absorbed, stirring often, about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup broth and simmer until liquid is absorbed, stirring often, about 4 minutes. After this initial stage you can continue to cook , adding more broth by ladlefuls and allowing liquid to be absorbed before adding more, stirring only after you have added the liquid.

When the rice is tender but still has a bite add the golden saffron liquid to the rice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.  For extra creaminess finish with cold diced butter stirring vigorously. Stir in the asparagus, the pancetta, 2 tablespoons  Parmesan and once last ladleful of broth. Cover and wait 5 min before serving. Serve, passing the remaining Parmesan separately.

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