Nothing sings spring to me in Italy like asparagus. Every year, when the season rolls around, I can hardly contain myself. Italy is Europe’s third largest exporter of asparagus so, much to my delight, it abounds here. The season is not a long one…usually April through May and since the peak production between the Northern and Central-Southern regions of Italy usually don’t overlap, it means I can find asparagus in the markets throughout the whole season (insert smile on my face). I am lucky my husband likes asparagus because we have been eating it almost everday since the season began!
In addition to green asparagus, Italy also cultivates the ever illusive white asparagus. The story of white asparagus is quite accidental. In the 1500s, Bassano del Grappa, a province of Vincenzo at the base of Mount Grappa on the Brenta River – about an hour by train from Venice, was hit by a severe hailstorm destroying the asparagus crop. The farmers tried to salvage the crop by harvesting the part underground. Upon tasting the white stalk, the farmers realized how tender and tasty it was and subsequently began cultivating it. If you ever have the chance, try it, the typical way to eat it in Bassano is to boil the asparagus standing up in salted water for about 10 to 15 minutes (making sure you don’t let the tips touch the boiling water). The asparagus is served with eggs boiled for 6 to 8 minutes so the yolk is still creamy. The eggs (2 per person) are peeled and mashed with a fork; add a bit of extra virgin olive oil, a few splashes of white wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. The asparagus spears are then dipped into the sauce. So easy, but, oh, so delicious!
Since white asparagus is quite regional and not easy to find and, very often, quite expensive, I decided to share a recipe that uses green asparagus. When it comes to asparagus, I believe the simpler the recipe, the better. What can be more simple and satisfying than asparagus soup? It is a spring in a mouthful with its velvety smoothness and fresh herb and lemony undertones. It becomes even more luxurious and decadent when you top it with salty, crunchy pancetta crumbles and a drizzle of creamy ricotta thinned out with a little fresh lemon juice and a few asparagus tips for some added texture.
This is perfect for a satisfying light lunch with some good, crusty bread or a great starter for a dinner party. You can make this a day ahead if you want. Store the asparagus tips in a separate container and lightly saute them in a pan with a little olive oil and salt right before serving.
This super healthy green and wonderfully tasty soup that can be put together with a few simple ingredients. It also freezes beautifully, so make a double batch and you can freeze half for a rainy day. It is delicious hot or cold.
- 1 lb (500 grams) asparagus spears (spears cut into half inch pieces and the tips cut off and reserved)
- 2 leeks (white and light green parts) sliced thinly
- 1 garlic cloves, sliced
- 3 Tablespoons olive oil
- 2 large handfuls of baby spinach
- 2 cups (470 mL)of vegetable stock or broth
- ½ cup (125 grams) fresh ricotta
- juice from 1 lemon
- ⅔ cup (150 grams) cubed pancetta
- Cut the tips of asparagus off the spears and sauté them 1 tablespoon olive oil for 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt. Make sure you don't overcook the tips as you want them to be crunchy so they add texture to the soup. Reserve and set aside.
- In an heavy bottomed pot, sauté the leeks and chopped asparagus spears for about 5 to 6 minutes. Add the chopped garlic and saute an additional 3 to 4 minutes.
- Add the baby spinach leaves and saute for 1 or 2 more minutes.
- Next, add the vegetable stock and bring to a boil. When it comes to a boil, reduce the heat and let simmer for about 5 minutes.
- Transfer the mixture to a blender (or you can use a stick blender) and blend until smooth.
- In a small bowl mix the ricotta and lemon juice until it is smooth. You want it to have the consistency of a thinned out yogurt. If you need to thin it out more, add a bit of milk.
- Ladle the soup in to bowls and top with a drizzle of the ricotta cream, a few asparagus spears, and pancetta crumbles.
- If you want to keep this soup vegetarian omit the pancetta and if you want the dish vegan, you can also take out the ricotta cream.
How to store asparagus when you bring it back from the market.
I cut of the woody ends (like you would do for fresh flowers) and then stand them up in a tall glass, a mason jar works well, with an inch owater. I then cover the top with a plastic bag creating a greenhouse effect. You can store it like this in the fridge for up to a week; although it never lasts that long in my house! Be sure to change out the water when it looks cloudy.