This dish should be voluptuous; to make it so, keep the eggs soft and runny so the yolks can mingle with the saltiness of the olives and the rich olive oil. Choose thick, juicy asparagus, and peel the stem ends so they’re tender all the way up.Olivata is Italian-style olive paste, very much like France’s tapenade. This recipe makes more of it than you’ll use, but it will keep well in the refrigerator for about a week, and it tastes good on many things. You can use it on grilled or roasted seafood, for instance, or on grilled lamb chops, or spooned onto crostini (little toasted bread rounds) for an appetizer. I especially like to toss it with spaghetti. If you do that, add the olivata to your al dente spaghetti and then moisten it with a few tablespoons of cooking water and a generous splash of fresh olive oil to loosen the sauce, and add a handful of chopped basil at the last minute.
(Serves 2 as a first course or a brunch dish)
1 cup Gaeta black olives, pitted
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
A palmful of salt-packed capers, soaked in cool water for about 1/2 hour and rinsed
2 salt-packed anchovies, rinsed of excess salt, filleted, and rinsed again (and soaked in cool water for about 20 minutes if they are excessively salty)
The zest and juice from 1 small lemon
A few thyme sprigs, the leaves only
A tiny splash of grappa or brandy
A teaspoon of Dijon mustard
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
10 fairly thick asparagus stalks, the stems trimmed and peeled
2 very fresh eggs, preferably organic
A handful of basil leaves, cut into thin strips
To make the olivata, place the pitted olives, garlic, capers, anchovies, lemon zest, and thyme in the bowl of a food processor and pulse for a few seconds until you have a rough paste. Add the grappa or brandy, mustard, a few grindings of black pepper, and about 1/2 cup of good extra virgin olive oil. Add enough oil to lubricate all the ingredients so the texture is no longer crumbly.. Pulse a few more times, just until everything is mixed but the texture is still chunky. I don’t like my olivata smooth, but I do like it luxuriously oily. Because of all the salty things you’ve added here, you won’t need extra salt, but do taste for balance; depending on your preference, you may feel you need a little more garlic, or lemon flavor (a squeeze of lemon juice might be just the thing). You can transfer the olivata to a small bowl and refrigerate it for a few days, or you can use it right away. If you do refrigerate it, make sure to bring it to room temperature before using it, so the finished dish can be warm and runny with no hard edges.
Put up a large pot of water and bring it to a boil. Drop the asparagus into it, tips up (it’s okay if the ends of the tips stick out of the water a bit). Blanch until just tender, no more than about 4 minutes, depending on how thick it is. Scoop the asparagus from the water with a large strainer, and lay it out on paper towels to drain. Arrange the asparagus on two small plates, all pointing in the same direction. Sprinkle it with salt, and drizzle it lightly with olive oil.
Fill a shallow saucepan with water and bring it to a very gentle simmer. Add a little salt to it. Gently crack an egg into a small cup and release it smoothly into the water so the yolk isn’t jarred. Do the same with the other egg. Let the two eggs poach, without moving them around at all, until the whites are set but the yolks are still runny. This should take about 3 minutes. Gently scoop them from the water, one at a time, and drain them on paper towels. Place one egg on each serving of asparagus.
Spoon a generous spoonful of olivata onto each egg. Give each dish a squeeze of lemon juice and a grinding of black pepper. Garnish with the basil and send to the table right away. Serve with good Italian bread, toasted, if you like (if you do choose to toast it, you might as well go all the way and rub the toast with raw garlic, brush it with olive oil, and finish it with a pinch of salt).
I like serving this with or after a plate of thin-sliced prosciutto, accompanied perhaps by buttered Italian bread.