I picked up Alice in Wonderland the other day, my old copy from when I was little. It’s a pretty book, bound in red leather with a gold trim and fine paper, the kind that old books always seem to have, the kind that crinkles so nicely as you turn the pages. No real rhyme nor reason for my picking the book off the shelf where it has sat, happily undisturbed for a very long time now. I sort of happened upon it absentmindedly and then found myself immersed in the story, as if falling down some kind of rabbit hole of my own, down into a world of nostalgia and fairytales. There is something at once comforting and decadent about reading children’s books as a grown up. Don’t you think?
I vaguely had at the back of my mind a thought that perhaps Aeneas and I could add Alice to our repertoire of bedtime stories, though I wasn’t sure if perhaps he is still to young to enjoy it as I did, or too much of a boy to enjoy it as I remember doing. As I flicked through, I paused for a while upon the tea party scene. I don’t know how well you know the story of Alice, but perhaps you too remember the scene with the long wooden table and the delicate china tea set, the Hatter and the March Hare and the tiny little dormouse, who snoozes on the table. I have somewhat of a soft spot for long tables and pretty china, as you know well – so perhaps it was inevitable that I should gravitate to this part of the book. Anyhow, about half-way through the chapter, there is this darling little piece of dialogue. I would give you a synopsis, but Lewis Carroll phrases it so very prettily that I don’t think I would do his words justice. It goes like this:
If you knew Time as well as I do’, said the Hatter, ‘you would know not to talk about wasting it. It’s him.’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’ said Alice.
‘Of course you don’t!’ the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. ‘I dare say you never even spoke to Time!’
‘Perhaps not,’ Alice cautiously replied: ‘but I know that I have to beat time when I learn music.’
‘Ah! that accounts for it,’ said the Hatter. ‘He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock.
I find myself very taken with this notion of Time The Person. I imagine him to be a distinguished character, sporting a waistcoat and cheery, red cheeks. Slightly eccentric and ever so charming. Though, you no doubt imagine him differently. Somehow, Time seems less intimidating than time: more approachable, you might linger with him over dinner. You see, time can be such a worrisome thing, speeding by so fast. Days, weeks, months gone in what feels like little more than a heartbeat .
This Christmas, Anthony gave me a lovely set of cookbooks. It was a particularly thoughtful gift: partly because he took time and careful thought to choose books full of the kind of recipes that he knows I love to cook. But mostly because, he never cooks from a book himself (he does everything by taste, feel, by a wing and a prayer – to excellent results, I might add), and finds my fascination with cookbooks a little bewildering. So I was particularly touched by the gift. Anyhow, in among this precious pile of books, was a pretty paperback, printed on thick cream paper, with line illustrations and recipe after recipe made with white asparagus from our Veneto region. The book is called L’Asparago Bianco del Veneto in case it takes your fancy too.
Needless to say, I have been longing to cook from ‘my asparagus book’, ever since I opened it up on Christmas morning. But I have been biding my time. If there is one thing that you can’t rush, it is asparagus season. It is incredibly short – a month, perhaps if we’re lucky a month and a half – and I sometimes wonder if that is what makes them taste quite so delicious. Anyhow, now that Spring is here: the markets are full of asparagus of every kind. White, green, wild. All delicious. And pretty much all I have been eating for the past week or so.
So this post is an homage to white asparagus – because this is their Time. I have put together three of my favourite recipes for you: steamed asparagus for dipping in a creamed yolk and olive oil sauce – kind of like egg and soldiers (if you ever had that as a child?), but more decadent. Aeneas is smitten by this recipe, by the way. As am I.
Then, a delicate creamed asparagus and nutmeg soup, which trust me is delightful both served hot with crusty, buttered bread or chilled with just a sprinkling of fresh parsley. At this time of year you never know what the weather is going to be doing and I love how this soup works just as well for gusty days – when the heavens open and it feels like it’s never going to stop raining – as it does for a leisurely garden lunch in the dappled Spring sunshine. And, last but in no way least, a Pasticcio di Asparagi Bianchi – a white asparagus lasagne of sorts, with the finest slices of taleggio cheese and a generous dollops of crème fraiche.
As you know, I have an incorrigible sweet tooth, so – just for good measure – I’ve added a recipe for dessert for you to enjoy also: a coconut cream meringata (meringue cake) with flaked almonds and berries. I first made this cake for a friend’s birthday a few weeks back, and we all enjoyed it so much that I have made it again twice since then.
Asparagus and musings aside, I have some exciting news to share with you: I will be hosting a cooking, writing and photography retreat here in Venice this Autumn with Marte Marie Forsberg. The dates are 20th-25th October which seems like and awfully long time away from now, but time being the way time is, I know that Spring and Summer will fly and before we know it, we will be eating porcini and polenta and homemade gnocchi in one of the prettiest palazzi in town. I have a feeling that it is going to be a very special few days – we will cook traditional Venetian dishes, wander through the hidden quarters of the city and work together to create our own little cookbooks, that I hope you will keep and cook from for years to come. I know I will! If you would like to take part, we have a few places left still so please do email me (skye@frommydiningtable) or Marie (email@example.com) or you can sign up here.
Asparagi Bianchi con le Uova
(White Asparagus Soldiers and Egg Mimosa)
White asparagus are woodier than green asparagus. Many cooks like to peel the stalks with a potato peeler before blanching or steaming them for 5-10 mins. I lack patience and find the peeling be a little too fiddly for my liking, so I leave the spears as is and cook them for longer. You will find the texture is still a little tough, but I quite like that.
Prep Time: 10 mins
Cook Time: 30 mins
500g white asparagus
100ml olive oil
1 tsp white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
Fill the kettle with water and bring it to the boil. Trim the asparagus and discard the ends then spread the stalks out on an opened fan steamer and lower into a frying pan or saucepan. Pour in roughly 2-3cm of the boiling water from the kettle and put the lid on. Steam for 25 mins.
While the asparagus is cooking, make the egg sauce. Fill a saucepan with cold water, add the eggs, bring to the boil and cook for 8 mins. Peel the hard boiled eggs, then gently slice them in half, cutting lengthways. Scoop out the yolks into a small bowl and save the white shells. Mash up the yolks, drizzle in the oil, add the vinegar then mix until smooth. Now add a little salt and pepper to taste. Spoon the yolk sauce back into the egg white halves and serve with the asparagus. Dip the asparagus tips into the sauce like soldiers.
Crema di Asparagi Bianchi e Noce Moscata
(Cream of White Asparagus and Nutmeg Soup)
Prep Time: 10 mins
Cook Time: 40 mins
1 medium potato
250g white asparagus
1l beef stock
1 egg yolk
200ml single cream
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
Peel the onion, roughly chop and add to a good sized saucepan with the dollop of butter. Set on a low to medium heat and cook gently for a few minutes while the onion softens. Meanwhile roughly chop the potato and the asparagus, toss that into the pan as well, then cook for a further 5 mins. Bring the stock to the boil in a separate pan and add to the vegetables, then cover, lower the heat a little and leave to simmer for half an hour.
Take the soup off the heat and blend until smooth. Crack the egg into a small bowl, pour in the cream, add the nutmeg and lightly beat with a fork until well combined, then pour the cream mixture into the soup and stir. Serve piping hot or bring to room temperature and chill in the fridge for a few hours before serving.
Pasticcio di Asparagi Bianchi e Taleggio
(White Asparagus and Taleggio Cheese Lasagne)
This recipe layers the asparagus and pasta with crème fraiche rather than with a béchamel sauce, as you might expect from a I find that the lasagna. I find that it is simpler to make that way, but it also tastes lighter. And with the rich asparagus cream, that works quite nicely. Though of course, if you prefer béchamel feel free to substitute it for the crème fraiche. Taleggio is a soft cheese from the Northern part of Italy and very easy to come by in this part of the world – but if you have any problems sourcing it at home, just substitute with another strong, melting cheese, like fontina.
Prep Time: 20 mins
Cook Time: 40 mins
2 tbsps olive oil
1kg white asparagus
175ml white wine
100ml single cream
320g lasagna sheets
130g taleggio cheese
500g crème fraiche
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade. Peel, roughly chop the onion and toss them into a large frying pan. Drizzle in the olive oil and cook on a low to medium heat, until the onion softens and becomes translucent. Meanwhile roughly chop the asparagus and add them to the pan, cook for 5 mins before adding the wine. Then sook until the liquid has evaporated, add the cream and take off the heat.
Meanwhile hard boil the eggs: fill a saucepan with cold water, add the eggs, bring to the boil and cook for 8 mins. Cover the bottom of an ovenproof dish with lasagna sheets, spoon a third of the asparagus into the dish and spread evenly. Thinly slice a third of the taleggio cheese and lay it over the asparagus, then peel one of the hard boiled eggs, thinly slice and lay it out over the cheese; top with a third of the crème fraiche. Repeat this process three times, then grate the parmesan over the top of the dish and set in the oven to cook for 25-30 mins, until golden and bubbly on top.
Meringata di Cocco, Frutti di Bosco e Mandorle
(Coconut Cream, Berry and Almond Meringue Cake)
The first time I made this cake, it was for my cousin’s birthday and she asked me to make a ‘healthy cake’, so I made the filling with coconut cream and honey. It was delicious – though sugar fiend that I am, I find that I prefer it with icing sugar. If you like, you can substitute the icing sugar for 3-4 tbsps of good quality honey.
Prep Time: 15 mins
Cook Time: 2 hrs 10 mins
6 egg whites
300g caster sugar
2 tsps cornflour
1 tsp white wine vinegar
600ml coconut cream
40g icing sugar
30g flaked almonds
fresh thyme for decoration
Preheat the oven to 140 degrees centigrade. Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper and trace three large circles on the paper. This is the outline for your meringue discs – you can use a cake tin to help you draw even circles. In a clean mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until they begin to peak, then add the sugar one spoonful at a time, beating all the while. When all the sugar has been added and the mixture is glossy, gently fold in the cornflour and the vinegar. Spoon the meringue onto the baking trays and use the back of a spoon to spread it out evenly into the circle shapes. Set in the oven and bake for 1 hr 10 mins, then leaving the door closed, switch off the oven and let the meringues rest in there for a further hour.
To make the filling, whip the coconut cream with the icing sugar (or honey, if that takes your fancy) until smooth. Take the first meringue disc and spoon roughly a third of the cream on top, sprinkle with a third of the berries and half of the flaked almonds. Top with the second layer of meringue and repeat the process again. Finally top with the third layer of meringue, spoon the last bit of the coconut cream, and decorate with berries and sprigs of thyme.