Rather like fresh pea and asparagus season, my stay back here at via Mastro Giorgio 81 will be brief. In both cases: green spring vegetables and Rachel, brevity is best. Best for the vegetables because in a world where production and marketing of food has gone mad, at a time when we’re bamboozled by infinite year-round choice, seasonal food is sanity, a joy to be anticipated, relished and then missed. Until next year that is. Seasonal peas in their pods and asparagus are so nice because they’re just that, seasonal. Brevity is best for me because however important it was to come back; to sort through things, talk, divide and try to forge a new kind of relationship with Vincenzo, however reassuring it feels to be back here in a house I love, I must, we both must, move on.
I don’t intend to move on very far though, in a physical sense that is. I’ve decided to look for a new place here in Testaccio, the quarter of Rome I know and love, the wedge-of parmesan-shaped rione XX tucked between the Tevere river, Aventine hill and the southern most section of the Aurelian wall, the quarter I wandered into over 6 years ago with about 20 words of Italian, one telephone number and no fixed plans. Actually Vincenzo and I have decided together that I’ll stay here in Testaccio, agreeing that it’s big enough for the both of us. We’ve discussed the possibility of a John Wayne sized showdown at some point, possibly in the market, weapons: a selection of underripe and overripe fruit and veg, but have concluded this risk is worthwhile. Vincenzo is stupendous.
So let’s get down to business. I have, hardly surprisingly, been extremely happy and over excited – irritatingly so was one observation - to be back living next to Testaccio market. After a very emotional reunion with my fruttivendoli Vincenzo and Rita, catching-up of the vegetable kind was embarked upon. I settled back into the kitchen with the always reliable courgette/zucchini carbonara and large pan of spring minestrone, before turning my attention to the new arrivals; peas and the first, plump asparagus.
The first kilo of peas was eaten just so on the way back from the market and while cooking the carbonara – straight from the paper bag, peas flicked from pods into my big mouth. Later the same day I went to supper with my friends Cinzia and Ettore and their kids, my favourite students, Antonio and Lucia. Cinzia served a big plate of fresh peas alongside some olives and cheese as an easy communal starter. It was a happy crashing of hands and podding of peas as Cinzia prepared the lamb. I’ll be borrowing this idea. The first bunch of asparagus was steamed until tender and eaten with olive oil, Roscioli bread and pecorino.
The second kilo of peas and second bunch of fat asparagus were destined for pasta, a spring affair, my interpretation of a lunch made for me early last week: farfalle con piselli e asparagi.
It’s all extremely simple. You pod your peas and steam the asparagus until tender but still firm, You could boil the asparagus I suppose, but I always wonder what you lose into the rolling water. You gently saute the podded peas and steamed, sliced asparagus in olive oil before adding a little white wine or water, a good pinch of salt and letting the peas and asparagus bubble away half covered, until tender and just starting to collapse.
Super-al-dente vegetable fans should look away now, for this particular recipe – or idea really – the peas and asparagus are cooked until very soft and just starting to fall apart – you give them a hand by pressing them gently against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon. Gasp and wince from Super-al-dente vegetable fans. Let me reassure you, you’re not trying to murder the vegetables, nor over-cook them into a murky brown mush (I am a traumatized victim of English school dining rooms in the 70′s remember, I know how bad it can be) you’re just breaking things up a bit, creating a slight creaminess and softness which will coat the pasta and bring things together.
You can add little more olive oil to the peas and asparagus along with a handful of finely chopped parsley or some ripped basil if you like. You should taste and check for salt. You will have a deliciously sweet, tender, oily, green muddle of peas and asparagus . I would happily eat a plate of this just so with a hunk of bread and lump of pecorino Romano.
You cook some Farfalle pasta – the butterfly / bow ties work beautifully here – and add it to the peas and asparagus along with a spoonful of the cloudy pasta cooking water to loosen things up. You could also add a big blob of ricotta at this point – I have plans to do this tomorrow so will update here accordingly. Serve topped with a little heap of freshly grated parmesan or pecorino and a grind of black pepper.
It’s nice to be back at my table with my favourite napkin, the one I borrowed from a restaurant in Trastevere (after a terrible meal I hasten to add! Not that a terrible meal justifies my criminal impulses.) This is my idea of a pretty perfect early spring lunch, well one of them at least, I have many. It’s delicate, fresh, simple. The gentle braising brings out the sweetness and softens the edges of three ingredients that although beautiful together might make for a rather fragmented dish if cooked too quickly, cooking them in this way ensures they come together into a satisfying, nourishing, rounded whole, A very good way to enjoy produce (and a kitchen) that won’t be around for long.
I am looking forward to experimenting around this idea; wild garlic, spring onions, a little finely chopped prosciutto, that big blob of ricotta…
Farfalle con asparagi e piselli
- 1kg fresh peas in pods (which will yield about 300g when podded)
- bunch of asparagus
- 60ml/2 floz olive oil
- 1ooml dry white wine
- some finely chopped parsely or a few ripped basil leaves
- another 30ml olive oil
- 450g farfalle pasta
- freshly grated parmesan/ pecorino
Pod your peas. Cut away the tough woody end of the asparagus – how much you trim will depend on the thickness and variety of asparagus.
Steam / boil asparagus over/ in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender, 2 to 6 minutes, depending on thickness of asparagus. Using a slotted spoon remove the asparagus from the pan and cut into 2″ pieces.
Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil in preparation for the pasta.
Warm the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the peas and a pinch of salt, stir and cook for a minute or two. Add the asparagus pieces, stir, add the wine and allow the vegetables to bubble away. half covered, for 12 minutes. Stir every now and then and gently press the veg against the sides of the pan with a wooden spoon so they break up gently. Pull the vegetables from the heat and add another glug of olive oil, the finely chopped parsley or basil and stir. Taste for salt and add more if necessary.