Thursday, May 10, 2007
Asparagus al Gratin
I’m dreaming of Florence. I’ll be back there in a month’s time, thanks to a kind invitation from the professor I studied with at NYU’s La Pietra campus – a 57-acre estate on the northern edge of the city.
Life there was heavenly. Imagine waking up each morning to sunlight streaming through wooden shutters and to the sound of church bells from the nunnery across the Via Bolognese. I would leave my residence, the Villa Natalia, walk through its grounds built after 16th-century Florentine gardens, and out into a vast olive grove. In early June, many of the trees were still blossoming, and the white olive petals would rain down on the students as we rambled through the valley to the Villa Ullivi where classes were held.
Learning about Renaissance literature, art, and culture in that setting could not have been more inspirational. But one of the things I remember the most fondly was the Villa Ullivi café – I suppose I am a glutton to the end.
We could buy cappuccinos and espressos in china cups to sip during class, and I can’t express how civilized and soothing this felt compared to the hurried slugs of spring water or latté I’d take from plastic bottles stashed in my purse or paper cups from Starbucks during class back in New York. How much more satisfying a thing is if done thoughtfully, beautifully, completely.
At lunch, a typical cafeteria-style steel buffet would be wheeled into the café for us to pick from. But an embarrassment of riches lay there for us in those metal bins. Prosciutto and salumis, fragrant melons, broken shards of Parmigiano Reggiano and soft white puddles of fresh mozzarella, tangles of arugula and bitter radicchio, grilled eggplant and peppers doused with balsamic and olive oil, and sometimes a bundle of roasted asparagus, dusted with more Parmigiano and showered with lemon juice and cracked black pepper.
Asparagus has been cultivated in the Mediterranean for at least 2000 years, and before that it grew wild in the sand dunes there. Plants only produce for 6 or 7 weeks a season, but the spears grow incredibly quickly. Early in the season, a farmer can expect to harvest once a week, but, as the weather warms and spears grow up to 10 inches a day, a field might be harvested every 24 hours.
I found these lovelies at the Cherry Lane Farms stand, and my thoughts immediately turned to the café at La Pietra. They stand on their own and make a lovely spring lunch with a glass of sparkling water or wine. As with all food this simple, each ingredient is vital. So careful not to scrimp on the pepper or lemon – they really underline the earthiness of in-season asparagus and brighten the caramelized cheese, which is more another seasoning element here than anything else.
Serves 2 – 4
Extra virgin olive oil
1 bunch fresh asparagus, rinsed and patted dry
fresh parmesan cheese
juice of 1 lemon
coarsely ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 450F.
Cover a baking sheet with foil and drizzle on a little olive oil to coat. Bend the bottom halves of the asparagus spears – they will snap where the fibrous section meets the tender, edible stalk. Discard the tough bottoms.
Arrange the asparagus on the baking sheet and drizzle with a little more olive oil. Sprinkle generously with salt and toss to coat. Grate a scant dusting of parmesan cheese over the top of the asparagus - the finer it’s grated the better. I used my rasp.
Roast until the asparagus are just tender and the cheese is lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Immediately douse with lemon juice and season generously with freshly ground pepper. Serve hot.