I know spring has finally arrived when the asparagus appear. The first ones I enjoy are usually the wild ones I pick in the woods that surround our house in Umbria. This year, sadly, I haven’t had time yet to go foraging. But at least I’ve been able to sate my hunger with the fat spears that have finally shown up at the market in Rome.
The only problem is that it’s still a bit early in the season, and so the asparagus are still on the expensive side. But last week I couldn’t resist and indulged, buying one tightly tied bunch. But what to do with just one bunch? Not quite enough to serve as a side dish on its own. But more than enough, it turns out, to make a great main course by adding pasta to the mix. Kind of like Asparagus Helper.
One of my favorite summer pastas is Alla Checca. This Roman dish combines tomatoes, chopped fairly small, with equally dainty cubes of mozzarella. They are then tossed, raw, with the hot pasta, along with lots of olive oil and basil. The key is the size of everything. The pasta of choice is usually dittalini, tiny tubes that end up being the same size as the tomatoes and cheese. I’m not sure why this makes such a big difference, but trust me, it does. I think it’s that you can use your fork and get a bit of everything in every bite.
My aim with the asparagus was to make a spring time version of this, more or less. First in the bowl were some of the incredibly intense tasting first tomatoes of the season, which are coming from Sicily this time of year. Just about as expensive as the asparagus, but impossible to resist. And instead of basil (still too early for that) I used some dried oregano, also from Sicily, that still manages to perfume the entire house when I open the jar.
Since I didn’t have any dittalini I finally opened up the pack of cicioneddos that I brought back with me from Sardegna. Tiny and ridged, they the perfect shape for what I had in mind.
The rest was pretty easy. The asparagus got chopped up and cooked along with the pasta, then everything was tossed together right in the serving bowl, along with lemon juice and zest. Very easy and that expensive asparagus got stretched out into a meal that served four people very well. Like I said, Asparagus Helper.
- 1 kilo / 2 pounds of asparagus
- 1 cup finally chopped cherry tomatoes
- 1 tsp salt
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 lemon, zest and juice
- 4 teaspoons dried (or fresh) oregano
- ½ kilo / 1 pound small pasta (dittalini or tiny shells if you can find them)
- Chop the tomatoes up very small, about ¼ inch pieces. Place in the serving bowl and add salt, olive oil,oregano, lemon zest and juice. Stir well and let sit for at least 10 minutes.
- Prepare the asparagus by cutting off the white, tough ends and washing well. Then cut the spears into ¼ inch disks, leaving the final tip whole. Set aside the tips.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Check to see if the pasta shape has a suggested time on it, most do. Add the pasta and set the timer for 4 minutes less than the suggested time.
- When the timer goes off, add the cut asparagus. After one more minute add the tips.
- When done, drain the pasta and asparagus and add to the bowl with the tomatoes and stir well. Taste and adjust for seasoning. I like it very lemony.
- The pasta is good immediately, or else at room temperature. I made way too much and ended up eating it for lunch the next few days and it was great. But let it come back to room temperature before servug