Asparagus with Warm Orange Oil
Easter for the lapsed Catholic is a hollow affair. If it weren’t for the huge amounts of food and chocolate bunnies, tons of relatives and friends, prosecco, and Chianti, it would be meaningless. Even when I was a child, it was all about the pizza rustica and the Rodda Peeps (I lapsed at a young age). I’m pretty confident in my lack of faith, but somehow Easter has a way of making me feel ever so slightly guilty, and gluttonous. And why is it that the weather is almost always cold, damp, and irritating, not the wacky bonnet, daffodils, white-patten-pumps sunshine it’s supposed to be? But on the other hand if I focus on the original, pagan meaning of the occasion, the rebirth of the earth, I can give early thanks for the upcoming local harvest and the beautiful ramps, asparagus, watercress, and strawberries that will soon be filling the stalls at the Union Square Greenmarket. In honor of my expectations, here’s a recipe for asparagus that will go very nicely with an Easter lamb dish or a pork loin (which is what my mother’s making) or a slow roasted side of salmon.
I’m also going to bake up a pastiera, the orange-flower-fragrant, wheat-berry-studded ricotta cheesecake that is a Neapolitan Easter specialty. I love this cake with a passion some people reserve only for their savior, and the good thing about it is that it’s so rich, so exotically flavor-packed, that I’m satisfied with a fairly small piece. I haven’t given you a recipe here because I usually just wing it, but I did recently find a good one, with all the right stuff in it (though maybe a little heavy on the candied fruit), at italianfood.about.com. It’s called Aironeverde’s Pastiera Napoletana. If you feel you need to stick to your diet during Easter, so as not to break the momentum, just make the asparagus. It’s delicious, and a beautiful harbinger of spring.
A word about the Easter-egg bread in the photo above: I’ve eaten these things every Easter for as long as I can remember. Every Italian pastry shop sells them, and some families make their own. Someone always drops one off at our house. It’s a ring pastry made from sweet yeast dough, usually braided, cradling day-glo eggs baked right into the dough. One thing I’ve never known was the actual Italian name for the thing. We always called it simply Easter bread. Every Italian-American I know calls it that. I phoned around to several Italian pastry shops, including Rocco’s, where I took the photo, but nobody could tell me an Italian name for it. When I Googled it, mostly it was referred to as Italian Easter Bread, but I did come across a little conversation about it on Chowhound.com where readers offered several names, among them pupacu ‘l’ova (that would be the Sicilian version), pina, and booba glove or buba glove, which may somehow be an Italian-American pronunciation of pupacu ‘l’ova. I always assumed it was a Neapolitan creation, but I suppose it’s Sicilian as well. If anyone out there knows the real Italian name for this funky pastry, I’d love to hear it. Thanks.
Asparagus with Warm Orange Oil
For the orange oil:
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
The grated zest from 2 large oranges
The juice from 1 small lemon
A small palmful of fennel seeds
1 garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
Freshly ground black pepper
A generous pinch of Aleppo pepper or a smaller pinch of cayenne
For the asparagus:
2 bunches medium thick asparagus, the tough ends trimmed and the stalks peeled
1 small orange, cut into thin half moons
A handful of small black olives (Niçoise are perfect)
A few large sprigs of fresh tarragon, the leaves lightly chopped
Place all the ingredients for the orange oil in a small saucepot over medium heat, and bring to a low boil. Turn the heat to low, and let simmer for about 2 minutes, making sure the garlic doesn’t get dark. Turn off the heat, and let the oil sit on the stove (this will allow the flavors to continue to gently mingle).
Set up a large pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the asparagus, and boil it until just tender, about 4 minutes, but that will depend on the spears’ thickness. Scoop it from the water with a large strainer spoon, and place on paper towels to soak up water. Arrange the asparagus on a pretty serving platter, and season it with a little salt and black pepper.
Reheat the orange oil gently, and then pour it through a strainer into a small bowl. Pour the oil over the asparagus, tossing it around a bit with your fingers to coat it well with the oil. Arrange the orange pieces around the asparagus, and scatter on the olives. Garnish with the chopped tarragon. Serve right away.