Sunday, January 30, 2011
I’ve known Paula Butturini ever since she and her family lived in Rome, where her husband, John Tagliabue, was the New York Times correspondent. While covering the fall of Romania’s dictator in 1989 , John was severely wounded by a sniper’s bullet in his back. Thankfully, he survived, and Paula’s beautifully written Keeping the Feast is a memoir about nourishment and restoration after a long period of tragedy. It’s about the sustaining powers of food, family and friendship.
I’m very happy that Paula is visiting my blog today. The occasion is the paperback release of Keeping the Feast, and her book tour in the States. Paula will be traveling around during the next few weeks, with her first stop in New York, this Thursday, at the Calandra Italian American Institute. Visit her blog to find out more about that, and her other stops.
And if you’d like to win a copy of Keeping the Feast, just leave a comment below. The drawing will be on February 25.
Is it Spring Yet? (an excerpt from Keeping the Feast, by Paula Butturini)
Late January and early February are the tough months for me, when I'm desperate for winter to be over, when I don't want to eat any more butternut squash, pumpkins, chestnuts or other winter food, no matter how good they first tasted late last fall and all through the holidays.
It's the time of the year when I'm even tired of the gorgeous broccoli we seem to have been eating three times a week for months now. I crave not only something fresh and green, but more importantly, something new, something from this year's garden, rather than last year's. It's as much -- or more, actually -- about needing the promise of spring than it is about eating, per se.
A food scientist would probably tell me that my body is craving some trace elements and minerals, but I say it's my mind craving sunlight and warmth, and the reassurance that winter won't last forever, that spring is on the way. Or that my stomach is telling me that it absolutely needs fresh asparagus, grown nearby, cut and brought to market, and cooked that very day. I'm rushing the season of course, but I like to think ahead about the asparagus that will be up soon; anticipating their appearance helps me chase winter away.
Boiled, steamed, braised, grilled or fried, green or white. I'm happy with almost any version of asparagus, as long as it isn't cooked to mush. I love it boiled or steamed till just tender, served warm with olive oil and lemon, or fresh from the oven with a dribble of butter and grated Parmigiano. I adore it in risotto, a true spring tonic when made with fresh green onions and the broth that results from parboiling the asparagus first.
I love it paired with freshly sauteed veal, and almost any way with eggs -- poached, lightly fried, in omelettes or frittatte. Though I'm not a great fan of the German version -- thick, white asparagus served with thick, yellow hollandaise and accompanied by Black Forest ham -- I remember a chilly spring lunch in Bonn, when I gobbled down a plate of perfectly boiled asparagus served with a German-style pancake whose batter was chock full of fresh herbs.
I can still taste the ethereal asparagus soup we inhaled on a trip to southwestern France nearly 10 years ago, eating it on the farm where it grew, and made and served by the wife of the farmer who had harvested it that morning. It was definitely not the prissy, wan cream of asparagus soup that is too often served in Parisian restaurants. This was a simple farm soup, a rich vegetable broth filled with big chunks of tasty asparagus and sliced, baby potatoes, with handfuls of chopped parsley to give it color and panache. I could have skipped the rest of that farm wife's meal, and just stuck with the soup, eaten with crusty baguette, and followed by a bit of cheese.
But perhaps my favorite way to eat fresh asparagus is the way my father used to cook it when I was entering my teens, braised till barely tender under a bed of wet lettuce.
It's a simple recipe that produced a vegetal perfume so inviting that it would fill our old Connecticut kitchen and call us all to table.
1 bunch fresh green asparagus
1 tablespoon butter
Several large, fresh lettuce leaves, anything but the iceberg variety
Wash asparagus in several changes of water, and break off the tough white bottom of each spear. Cut each spear on the diagonal into bite-sized pieces, giving the spear a quarter turn after each cut. (This is done to increase the surface area and allow them to cook more quickly, but they can be cooked whole as well.) Place the butter in a large, shallow, non-reactive frying pan that has a good cover. Place the wet asparagus into the pan. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Wash the lettuce leaves and place them, dripping wet, over the asparagus, covering them completely. Then cover the pan tightly. Turn the heat on to medium high until the water inside starts to sizzle, then lower heat and cook for three to five minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears. Do NOT overcook. The asparagus should be barely tender but still have a bright, green color. Discard the lettuce leaves and serve immediately on a warm platter.
As a kid, I liked to be there for the moment when my father would lift the lid of the pan at the end of the cooking, to smell that cloud of vegetable essence that was waiting to escape.