March 21, 2009
Celebrating Spring with Pasta
Spring is an exciting time for the seasonal cook, as tender new shoots start to emerge and appear at local markets. I am lucky to live in a warmer climate with an earlier spring; therefore, I am beginning to see produce like asparagus, fresh herbs, artichokes, avocados, green peas, and fava beans…to name a few.
At this time of year, the best dishes are those that make the most of all the new, delicately flavored vegetables. To me, the essence of the spring season means fresh, light, and usually green (more sun = more chlorophyll). Many of you are familiar with spaghetti carbonara, which traditionally features eggs, black pepper, crispy bacon, and a hard cheese. I created a spring-inspired take on the pasta dish, lightened up with asparagus, fresh peas and herbs, along with a modest amount of sharp cheese. I love poached eggs on almost everything—lentils, salads, toast—so why not pasta I thought? Placing a delicately poached egg on the pasta would allow the creamy yolk to ooze over the warm pasta and create a silky sauce. Before you continue on with my recipe, I thought I’d enlighten you with some interesting tidbits about two of spring’s finest crops: asparagus and green peas.
Asparagus is celebrated as the start of spring in many cultures as the tender shoots reach the surface of the earth. The plant is a member of the lily family and the edible “spears” are harvested when they are still immature. White asparagus, which is prized in Europe for its delicate flavor, is genetically identical to green but is grown underground to prevent chlorophyll production.
Asparagus has been used in the kitchen since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and has long been thought of as a delicacy. It was also valued for its diuretic effects and aphrodisiac properties (likely due to its phallic shape). There is an interesting recipe for cooking asparagus in one of the oldest known cookbooks, “De Re Coquinaria”, that was published in the third century AD. It appears that culinary technique has come a long way: check out an excerpt from a translation of the original recipe:
"...you take cleaned asparagus, you will rub it in the mortar, you pour in water, you will rub all over, you filter through a strainer and throw incomplete figpeckers.”
*Apparently, figpeckers are a small bird. For those who are curious, the author then proceeds to add, pepper, wine, fish sauce, raisin wine, oil, and eggs.
Culinary use of asparagus really began to flourish in the seventeenth century, and the shoots are served in a number of ways in traditional cuisines around the world. French-style with hollandaise, Asian-style in stir fries, Italian-style paired with eggs or in soups, to name a few.
Fresh asparagus, consumed soon after its harvested, as always best. The stalk will become woodier and the flavor will deteriorate after a few days.
Most people think of peas as a vegetable but they are actually members of the legume family. There are three types that are commonly eaten: green or garden peas, snow peas and snap peas. The pods of snow peas and snap peas are edible and they have a slightly sweeter taste than the green pea. Green peas are usually available at the beginning of spring—inside of the rounded pods are pea seeds that are sweet and starchy.
“Pease” or field peas, were grown specifically for drying, and were one of the earliest cultivated food crops. Street vendors in 500 to 400 BC were recorded to have sold hot pea soups as street food. During the Middle Ages, dried peas (which are chock-full of nutrients) provided basic sustenance for the poor and helped to avoid a famine in England in the sixteenth century. The familiar Old English rhyme is a reflection of the meals typical to a young peasant child growing up during those times.
Pease porridge hot,
Pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot
Nine days old.
It was not until later that more tender varieties were developed and people began to consume peas in their fresh state. The French King Louis XIV popularized garden peas in the 17th century and eating fresh peas from the pod became à la mode almost overnight.
Spring Pasta Carbonara with Poached Eggs
2 ounces thinly sliced pancetta, diced
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
½ pound asparagus (about 8-10 spears), cut into 1-inch lengths
½ cup fresh shelled green peas
½ cup good quality chicken broth
1 pound spaghetti
½ tablespoon butter
½ cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon white vinegar
4 medium organic eggs
1 tablespoon fresh chives, minced
2 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1. Heat 1 teaspoon of the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta; cook until crisp, about 7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a small bowl and set aside.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
3. In a large skillet, heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and asparagus, stirring occasionally for 3 minutes. Add the green peas and chicken broth and simmer over moderately low heat until reduced by half and asparagus are tender, about 10 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, add the spaghetti to the boiling water and cook until it is al dente. Drain the spaghetti and add to the vegetables in the large skillet. Toss with the butter and grated cheese until the pasta is well coated. Season with salt and pepper. Cover to keep warm.
5. Pour enough water in a large skillet to reach a depth of 1½ inches; add 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a simmer. Stir in the vinegar. Crack an egg into a small bowl and carefully slide it into the simmering water. Repeat with the remaining eggs. Simmer over low heat until the whites are set but yolks are soft, about 3 minutes.
6. While the eggs are cooking, divide the pasta among 4 shallow serving bowls, using a spoon to create a slight indentation in the center. Lift the eggs from the pan with a slotted spoon and place in the center of each bowl. Sprinkle the herbs and pancetta evenly over each dish. Season with freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.