March 10, 2012

Blog the Eighth: Asparagus 'n Eggs

A Match Made in Heaven for Meatless Fridays

Asparagus is perfect for Lent, coming in season just in time as it does, and loving eggs as much as it does.  Asparagus and eggs are a match made in heaven, so I say, Let no man divide what God has joined in a union as loving as it is holy.  Of course, leave it to the French.  The sophists flatter aversion to vegetables by pulverizing the poor thing and giving it over to be swallowed up by a bowl of cream surfeited with a dollop of butter, with only floating fragments surviving, as bits of limb did in the Cyclops’s bowl of milk after he washed down the companions of Odysseus whom he had chewed up.  The French are ready to do this to any vegetable you don’t like, and it always satisfies, because it’s the same taste satisfaction over and over again, namely hot buttered cream.  If not for the nutritive value of the vegetable doomed for the day, they might just as well hand out bowls of heated cream, a spoon, and the salt and pepper shakers.

My people so venerate asparagus that I won’t even call what they make of it a soup.  Soup implies a liquified mélange.  We, rather, cook the asparagus in a minimum of water so that it makes its own broth for itself, and then we drop eggs beaten with a little grated cheese into its broth, to add buttressing substance and complementary savoriness.  This soup is for the sake of the asparagus, not the asparagus for the soup, so in Italian one would call it in brodo, its own broth, in fact.

Unwilling though I be to grant an annulment to the Frenchman’s cream of asparagus soup, I can see my way to a dispensation for the vegan’s disavowal of egg, it being a matter of conscience in the latter case, whereas of decadence in the former.  Since St. Paul tells us to indulge the consciences of our more scrupulous brethren, I’ll allow you to veganize this soup by omitting the eggs and adding maccheroni instead, to make a vegetable pasta oniony out of it.  It’s also delicious this way, albeit not as delicious as with the eggs.  Make no mistake about it:  the eggs make the dish.

The other delicious thing to do with asparagus and eggs is to make a frittata (or Italian "omelet") out of them.  During the rest of the year, I tend to use this frittata for lunch, or else I cut it down to finger-food to buttress an antipasto platter, but during Lent it serves as a convenient second dish for meatless Fridays, or for vegetarian guests, who are most conveniently invited when doing penance.

If you’re paying attention, Nature is teaching you what to do with your asparagus.  At the same time that she gives asparagus in abundance (a sign of which is that the price drops from ridiculous to reasonable), she also gives spring onions.  My mother’s recipe for asparagus soupy arises from a veritable spring onion festival in the mountains of Campania.  Scallions are of course readily available to us in the U.S. year round, and they are perfect for this dish, but the other more bulbous varieties of spring onion that show up at this time of year are nice to use as well.  When you can’t find spring onions, yellow onions will do, but they’ll be helped if backed up by shallots, or in the worse case, a little finely chopped garlic.

At this point I feel the need of an excursus on onion, in order to contextualize the exception that asparagus soupy constitutes in my people’s cooking.  All our sautéed vegetable dishes begin with a base either of garlic or of onion.  These can be elaborated upon in various ways, for example, adding hot red pepper or anchovy to the garlic, or carrot and celery to the onion, or a little tomato pulp to both.  These flavoring bases, being bases, are meant to support, frame, or enhance the flavor of the featured vegetable, not couple with it on equal terms, nor feature with it in counterpoint.  In the case of onions in particular, we want it to blend in and form part of the medium of the dish, not be felt as a separate item.  To this end, we chop our onions fine enough and sauté them long enough that they soften, sweeten, and blush golden, before adding the other ingredients they’re meant to flavor.  By the end of the dish, they are imperceptible to the tongue and sometimes even to the eye, and their onion flavor is suffusive rather than intrusive.

A protégé of my people’s cooking recently said to me, “I don’t cut my onions as small as you do.”   This way of putting it makes it a matter of diversity and personal style—to each his own.  It is in fact nihilism.  It is a denial of natural kinds and their eidetic demands, a denial of Nature’s prerogative to diversify her own species.  At stake in this matter of the onion is the very Idea itself of my people’s cooking, its essential nature and characteristic notes.  It is precisely because of the joy it takes in nature’s diversity that the cooking of my people restricts onion to the ancillary role of setting off the flavor of a featured vegetable.  Like air or light, it must be transparent for other things to be seen by means of it.  If you use too much onion, cut it too coarse, or leave its flavor untamed by insufficient sautéing, your dishes will start to take on the redundant taste of onion ‘n something.  I can well imagine other species of cuisine where a very different use may be made of onion, but to do so in the recipes I give you is like putting horns on a man or lipstick on a pig.  It’s not right.  And that, in my opinion, is not a matter of opinion.

Only if you submit yourself to this onion-aesthetic of our cuisine can you appreciate the times our cooking chooses to feature onion, as it does in asparagus soupy.   In this dish we do want to see the onion in the end and maybe even feel it on the tongue (but still not need to chew it—we almost never want that in our cooking). Moreover, the varieties of delicate onion used in this dish, such as scallions or shallots, do not hold up under long sautéing without dissipating altogether, which is the opposite and equally undesirable extreme to that of overplaying onion.  On all counts, asparagus soupy is the exception that only confirms the rule:  we use lots of spring onion, cut it not too fine, and cook it not too long.

My mother has a special way of cutting the scallions so as to feature them and I follow her lead.  I first cut away the root and as much of the green top as looks old, tough, or otherwise unappetizing, and then rinse the trimmed stalks.  I next cut the stalks into segments a couple of inches or so long.  Then I quarter each such segment lengthwise by slicing it in half first, then rolling the stalk a quarter turn to slice it lengthwise in half again; I then slice these 4 quarter-lengths crosswise in half, to end up with rectangular inch-long pieces of scallion.  This may seem a bit tedious, but I exhort you to resist the temptation to just cut the scallion stalks crosswise into little rounds, as is common in Asian cooking—that’s a different aesthetic.  Here’s your chance to honor true diversity.

I’ll use a couple of bundles of scallions for a good sized bundle of asparagus, or else a bundle of scallions and a shallot or two.  The shallot I’ll slice more finely than the scallions, first halving it crosswise if it’s big, and then slicing them somewhat finely lengthwise, to end up with inch-long slices.  (If I only have yellow onions available, then I slice them likewise into rather fine inch-long slices and sneak in a very little bit of finely chopped garlic during sautéing.)

I likewise break the asparagus stalks into inch-long pieces.  I don’t have the patience to fuss over asparagus because I don’t think it worthwhile.  I don’t do the gourmet thing of trimming off the triangular scabs up and down the stalk, because they never offend me when eating asparagus. I also don’t do the frugal thing of peeling away the tough skin at the base of the stalk, because I don’t like the white look of the denuded stalk.  Instead, I grab the stalk at the base and snap it as far down as it wants to snap, throw that piece away, and continue snapping off inch-long pieces up the stalk to its tip. 

Speaking of tips, always choose asparagus with tips closed up tight like the bud of an unopened flower.  Also, treat the bundle of asparagus like a bouquet of flowers when you get it home, cutting away an inch from the bases and putting the whole bundle in a few inches of water.  Keep it like that in the frig until you’re ready to cook it.  Asparagus is basically really fat grass, and like grass, it will revive and thrive in water.

Asparagus Soupy

Time to start cooking asparagus soupy.  First I put water to simmer for use later.  I pour out a pool of either regular or extra virgin olive oil into a pot (say, a tablespoon per eater), and in the center of the pool I plop a wad of butter, which is not traditional, but tastes good anyway [but don’t go too far—you’d be Frankifying the dish with equal parts butter and oil].  I scrape the sliced scallions and/or shallot off my board into the pool of fat, shower it with salt, turn the heat up to medium, and cover the pot for an initial pre-steaming, flipping and mixing now and again.  When the scallions have come to a steamy and lively sizzle, I remove the cover and let them dry off to become translucent and perfumey.  (If I’m using regular onion, however, I sauté them much longer, as usual, until they blush golden.) 

Then I add in the asparagus pieces with a shower of salt, flip them around with the onions and oil, and cover the pot again, until they likewise come to a steamy sizzle.  As before, I then remove the cover, grind black pepper all over them, and let them dry off and get glisteny.  At this point it’s time to add the liquid they will turn into asparagus broth.  If you trust the quality of your asparagus and the delicacy of your guests’ palates, add only boiling water with salt, as is traditional, and just enough to cover the asparagus, and the purity of asparagus flavor in the end will in turn rejoice the purist.  If however you want to play it safe or play to the crowd, then add half boiling water and half chicken broth.  I advise against using all chicken broth, unless you just want chicken soup with asparagus floating in it.

Simmer the asparagus at a gentle simmer until fork-tender, as little as 5 minutes but usually closer to 10, and rarely much more.   I often cook it to this point in advance, and leave it sit until it’s time to serve it. When it’s time, I bring it back to a simmer to drop in one or two eggs.  Beat the eggs together with a tablespoon each of grated Pecorino Romano, and also some chopped parsley, salt and pepper.  Also, beat a little asparagus broth into the egg mixture, before pouring it throughout the simmering asparagus in the shape of a serpentine river.  Let the simmering liquid solidify this river a bit before disturbing it, either by swishing the pot around or else running a fork back and forth through it, to create clusters of egg throughout the asparagus.  Let the egg cook through and firm up.  I serve the asparagus with its egg clusters in a pool of its own broth, in a pasta bowl, with a basket of crusty bread on the side.

Asparagus soupy makes for a light and delicious first dish when you don’t want to blunt the appetite for what’s to follow.  But if you want a more substantial first dish, or want to leave out the eggs, then you can boil spoon-sized maccheroni or inch-long segments of spaghetti and add it to the asparagus (with as much pasta water as needed) to make it into a soupy pasta oniony.  As for adding grated cheese at table, it’s a matter not merely of taste but of gustatory conscience whether you want to add grated cheese to any of these forms of asparagus soupy, as a thing not done in fact but not offensive to conceive, and at the very least, a thing to be indulged in a Gentile.

 Asparagus Frittata

If you need a main dish for a Friday in Lent or for a vegetarian dinner party, asparagus frittata is delicious, even to those who think they don’t like asparagus.  It can even be a gateway-dish to love of asparagus, or else love of eggs, if your guests suffer from either of these imaginary phobias or spurious aversions. 

A frittata is an Italian omelet, so to speak, and is surrounded by controversy.  What all Italian frittate have in common and contradistinguishes them from French omelets is that the eggs always have grated cheese beaten into them and the frittata is always cooked through, never gooey.  At this point, the Italian controversy begins.  My mother avers that a frittata is supposed to be fried in oil at lively heat, so that you end up with a tastily browned skin and meaty interior, between ¼-inch and ½-inch high.  Marcella, on the other hand, insists a frittata must cook very slowly in butter, so that you end up with a completely pale exterior and fluffy interior.  When I lived in Rome, I saw a great Roman cook fry her frittata quick in a pan very thin, like pancakes, with blushing exterior. 

So, what do I do?  If I’m in a rush and lazy, I do it lively like my mother; if I have time for it, I do it slow like Marcella, using both butter and oil, but sauté it long enough for it to take on a blush of color, like the Roman’s.  Also, whichever way I do it, I use my mother’s layering technique of lifting up the forming frittata now and again to let gooey egg on top run underneath the firming layers of egg below.

For an asparagus frittata, I cut and sauté the asparagus as above for asparagus soupy, except that I use less onion and more butter, and a non-stick frying pan.  (In fact, you can omit the onion altogether, as my mother does, and just melt a couple of tablespoons of butter into a couple of extra virgin olive oil, and add the asparagus pieces to the pan solo with a shower of salt.)  Add the asparagus to the pan and flip it around with the onion in the oil and butter; then cover the pan, and let the asparagus steam in its own vapors, until softened but still undercooked.  Then remove the cover to let it dry off and finish cooking by sautéing in the oil and butter.

Meanwhile, I beat 4 or 5 eggs (for a bundle of asparagus) with a tablespoon of grated Pecorino Romano each  (heaping tablespoons, because they were freshly grated in airy curls—as is just and right—with my handy Oxo rotary hand-grater), together with pinches of salt, grindings of black pepper, and chopped fresh parsley.  Then I pour my eggs into the pan, using my favorite heat-resistant spatula to squeegee every last drop from the bowl.  I stir the eggs and asparagus together in circles to evenly distribute the asparagus throughout the frittata‑to‑be.   Then I lower the heat, to let it cook slow, over my mother’s objections, noted.

When I can see that a solid layer has formed underneath, I use my trustily flexible spatula to cut a slit in the middle of the frittata and lift up each lip to allow runny egg to run down underneath in the center; I then the do the same all around the edge of the forming frittata, tilting the pan as I lift up edge to encourage runny egg to run underneath.  I also use my spatula to neaten and shape the edges.  I wait for the new under-layer to firm up, and unless there’s still so much runny egg on top that I need to repeat the procedure, I begin to look for butter bubbling up at the edges to signal that the bottom is firm, rosy, and ready to be flipped (I might even slide my spatula underneath to take a peak, because I don’t want my frittata to brown; I want it only to blush rosy, and I try to time the flip accordingly).

When it’s time for the flip, the set frittata will easily slide around the non-stick pan.  I grab a light and manageable plate and slide the frittata onto the plate angled to receive it easily.  Then I quickly but calmly turn the frying pan over onto the plate, and quickly and calmly flip the pair over together.  If that bitch Fortuna is with me and all goes well, I can place the pan back down on the heat and remove the plate from on top.  But if the Bitch confounds me, I can usually still do a patch job, using my spatula to reshape the shambles, although it might require a second flip. 

If you don’t trust either yourself or the Bitch, there are two alternatives to the pan‑flip.  You could instead of the pan use a second light plate to sandwich the frittata, flip the whole plate sandwich over, and then slide the frittata off the second plate back into the pan, but you of course lose egg this way.  To avoid flipping altogether, you can put the pan under the broiler, leaving the door of the oven open and the handle sticking out the open door, and finish the top side of the frittata under the broiler, occasionally repositioning the pan to get an even blush.  I often do this when I make a very large frittata in a large non-stick frying pan.

The bubbling of butter at the edges tells me when the frittata is ready.  I, for one, like my frittata neither pale alla Marcella, nor browned alla mamma, but blushing. I do not like it wet in the inside, like the French, but I do like it moist on the inside and springy to the touch from the outside. 

I slide it out of the pan and onto a paper towel, to sop up excess fat, and cover it with another paper towel, until I’m ready to eat it, with crusty bread, needless to say.  If there’s leftover, I’ll put it in the frig for noshing on mid-morning, mid-afternoon, or at the antipasto hour—whether chilled from the frig, dechilled to room, or very briefly nuked.  When I come home from work tired and hungry and find a forgotten fragment of frittata, I count myself singularly blessed by a match made in heaven to relieve the fallen estate of man.

Asparagus in Broth 

*  Trim two bundles of scallion, quarter them lengthwise, then cut them crosswise into inch-long pieces.  Pour out a pool of olive oil into a pot, add a wad of butter, the chopped scallions, a shower of salt and grindings of pepper, then cover the pot and turn on the heat to medium.  Flipping now and again, let the scallions come to a steamy sizzle covered, then remove the cover to let them dry off and turn translucent and perfumey.  
*  Add a bundle of asparagus broken down into inch-long pieces, with a shower of salt.  Saute them until they glisten with the oil.  Then add half water and half chicken broth, just to cover.  Turn the heat down to simmer gently until asparagus is fork-tender, ten minutes, more or less.

*  Beat an egg or two with grated Pecorino Romano, salt, and pepper, and drizzle it throughout the asparagus broth in the form of a winding river. Let the river solidify a bit before running a fork back and forth to form egg clusters throughout the soup.  Let the egg finish cooking through.  Serve asparagus 'n eggs in a pool of its broth and with crusty bread.