Tag Archives: piedmont

From Soil to Spear

asparagus in the fieldYou know your a bit food-obsessed when you electively choose to take a field trip to an
asparagus farm on a sunny Saturday instead of heading to the sea or lingering away the day sipping a spritz or two alfresco. This isn’t so far fetched when you’re going to food school with a group of like-minded people. Last weekend, my fellow classmates woke up earlier then the weekend norm, skipped out on our morning café and cornetto, and piled into a half dozen cars to make way to the tiny village of Santena, just southeast of Turin. 

Santena is famous for their asparagus – it’s known throughout Italy for growing some of the best asparagus in the country. Christina, an alumna of UNISG, met us at her small family farm to show us their asparagus fields. They grow just enough asparagus to supply a few local restaurants and to sell to members of the community out of their home. This was the first time I had ever seen how asparagus grows and I was quite surprised by the process. They have just two small plots of land dedicated to asparagus. One is currently being harvested while the other won’t be harvested until next spring. The interesting thing about asparagus is that when seeds are first put down the plants must mature for two full years before they can be harvested. The third year after planting is the first year they’ll be harvested and enjoyed. Then, after that first harvest, the asparagus plants keep giving, as they are perennials, for 10 to 12 more seasons.

asparagus plants

The rows of maturing asparagus plants – these won’t be harvested until next spring

Harvesting is quite a labor-intensive process. Christina’s family’s asparagus is all hand
harvested – her father was out in the field harvesting the morning’s crop when we arrived. The season in Italy lasts about two months, from mid-April to mid-June, and during the height of the season the asparagus is usually harvested twice a day since it can grow at an astonishing rate of 20 cm a day.

Christina with asparagus

Christina explains the harvesting process

After a morning out in the fields we found our stomachs grumbling for lunch. We piled back into our cars for a quick drive to the nearby restaurant, L’Antico Poppio, where we enjoyed a leisurly asparagus-centric lunch in order to taste the locals’ favorite springtime vegetable. For serious asparagus lovers only – the lunch consisted of four courses and four preparations of the vegetable, all served family-style. We started with platters of blanched asparagus served with flavorful aioli for dipping. Then came asparagus wrapped with prosciutto crudo and Stracchino cheese and baked with even more Stracchino, Parmigiano-Reggiano and cream – a sort of retro-style casserole that was extremely addictive. Our next course consisted of ricotta and herb ravioli dressed in a simple asparagus and prosciutto cotto sauce. And finally, when we has already easily consumed about a pound of asparagus each, came asparagus cooked in a healthy dose of butter and finished with a heavy hand of Parmigiano-Reggiano. We were half expecting dessert to consist of asparagus as well but luckily it was a simple but delicious tiramisù, a welcomed change after all that asparagus. Yet, even after all of that asparagus, I found myself craving more not too long after I had thought I had my fill for the season. The next evening, all it took was risotto made with a handful of Christina’s family’s asparagus that I had brought home to nix the craving.

asparagus with aioli

Asparagus four ways – blanched and served with aioli,

 

prosciutto wrapped asparagus

…wrapped with prosciutto crudo,

 

asparagus ravioli

…as a sauce for ricotta and herb ravioli,

 

butter asparagus

…and finally, bathed in butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano

A Lesson in Bagna Cauda

bagna cauda

One of the most unique parts about studying at an international university abroad is the knowledge received not only from worldly professors but also from classmates that come from both near and far. My class is a United Nations of sorts, with over a dozen countries represented among just twenty six people. And seeing that we are all a bit food obsessed, the most exciting knowledge obtained from one another is that of our food culture.

Before the holidays two fellow classmates from Torino organized a dinner for our class centered around one of the important traditional dishes of the Piemonte region where I am living. Bagna cauda, which translates to “hot bath,” is a warm dip made with garlic, anchovies and olive oil. Many variations exist but all are served hot, traditionally in a terra cotta pot lit with a candle to keep the dip warm, with a variety of raw and cooked vegetables for dipping.

bagna cauda dinner

Bagna cauda for twenty six

At our dinner we ate it as a main course, with each person dipping from their own terra cotta pot. The dip can also be served as an appetizer, which is how I prepared it for my family on Christmas Eve back in the States, thanks to my friend and classmate Claudia who provided her family’s recipe. And while you may not want to breath too close to anyone after indulging in bagna cauda, be careful: the stuff is addictive.

bagna-cauda

Back at home – smashed garlic and anchovies cooking in oil then blended till smooth

Bagna Cauda (adapted from Claudia Quaranta)

Serves two as a main course or many (10-12) as an appetizer. The recipe can easily be halved or doubled depending on how much you need. Leftover bagna cauda can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days. It is great tossed with pasta or reheated as is.

2 heads of garlic (try to use a mild garlic like elephant if available. If it’s strong, one head is enough)
200 g (or slightly less then a 1/2 pound) of salted anchovies, prepped and cleaned (see below)
2 cups good extra virgin olive oil
2 cups + 2 Tbsp milk
10 walnuts, toasted and finely ground

How to prepare the anchovies:

First debone the anchovies by carefully peeling away the main bone and the tail starting from the back, leaving little to no meat on the bone. Discard bones and put the anchovies in bowl with a splash of red wine vinegar. Put the bowl in the sink and with water running, wash each anchovy to remove salt.  After washing, place each anchovy on a plate lined with paper towels. Pat dry with additional paper towels and let them continue to dry for 30 minutes. At this point they are ready to be used. If you’d like to do this ahead of time, place the anchovies in an airtight container, cover them with olive oil and store in the refrigerator until ready to use, no more then 4-5 days.
 

1. Peel garlic cloves and put into a medium saucepan with 500 mL milk. Bring the milk to a simmer and cook over medium low heat, stirring frequently, until the garlic is soft and can be smashed with a fork.

2. Drain the garlic, place it in a bowl and smash it.

3. Place smashed garlic and prepared anchovies in a clean medium saucepan and cover with 500 mL of olive oil. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently. The anchovies will melt into the oil and garlic and become a thick, rough sauce. Once this has happened, turn off the heat, add remaining 2 Tbsp of fresh milk and puree until smooth using an immersion blender. Once smooth, stir in ground walnuts.

4. Serve warm with your choice of raw and cooked vegetables for dipping. Traditional vegetables include raw endive, raw celery, raw or roast peppers, boiled potatoes, raw Jerusalem artichokes, boiled cardoons, raw or boiled cabbage, steamed onions and boiled turnips.