Recipe: Asparagus and Ricotta Tart with Thyme
I’ve been preparing myself for the drabness of March, my least favorite month of the year, by making myself miserable so I don’t have to compete with the weather. This is generally a very dull month in forgotten old Manhattan, a time where the city is littered with clumps of dirty snow, cold winds blow, and scaffolding provides dark shelters to the forlorn. But to my surprise I woke up this morning and it was beautiful, sunny, almost 70 degrees, and crocuses were coming up on West 13th Street. How about that? And what about the misery I’d been honing so successfully? I decided to break out of it by doing a little spring-like baking.
Ricotta and asparagus are for Italians two symbols of the earth’s springtime renewal, and both of these fine ingredients figure prominently in Italian Easter recipes. I actually really dislike Easter, mainly because it’s so damned religious but also because it’s still usually too cold around here to get done up in pastels and strut around town. But I do start to crave asparagus. It is still months away at our local Greenmarkets, but sunny California’s got tons of it right now, so I went out to good old Balducci’s and bought a bunch, along with a container of very sweet-smelling store-made ricotta. A few hours later I had a good-looking asparagus and ricotta tart cooling off on my kitchen counter. I felt almost cheerful. I’m sure the crappy March weather will return, but at least I had something good to eat on this fine day.
Asparagus and Ricotta Tart with Thyme
You’ll need a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom
For the crust:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
4 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, chilled
4 or 5 tablespoons cold white wine,or possibly a little more
For the filling:
1 big bunch medium-thick asparagus, trimmed and peeled (if you can find only really skinny ones, don’t bother peeling them)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot, thinly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
1½ cups whole-milk ricotta
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons whole milk
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, plus a little extra for the top
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
⅛ teaspoon grated nutmeg
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
A few large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
To make the pastry: Put the flour in the bowl of a food processor. Add the salt, sugar, and thyme. Give it a few pulses to blend the ingredients. Add the butter and the olive oil, and pulse 2 or 3 times to break up the butter into bits. Add the white wine, and pulse once or twice more or until you have a mass of moist clumps (the dough should hold together when you pinch a bit of it). If it still seems too dry, add a tiny bit more wine and pulse again. Dump the dough out onto a work surface, and press it into a ball. Give it one or two quick kneads, and then wrap it in plastic wrap. Let the dough rest in the refrigerator at least 3 hours, or overnight.
Set up a large pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add the asparagus, and blanch for about 3 minutes. Drain it, and run it under cold water to stop the cooking and to bring up its green color. Cut the stems into disks, leaving the tips with about an inch of stalk attached.
In a small sauté pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot and the asparagus rounds (not the tips), and season with salt and black pepper. Sauté until the shallot has softened, about 2 minutes. Let cool.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Coat the tart pan with a little olive oil. Roll out the pastry dough on a lightly floured surface, and drape it into the pan, trimming off any overhang.
Stick the tart pan in the refrigerator while you’re preparing the filling. Mix all the remaining ingredients for the filling together in a bowl, and season well with salt and black pepper. Add the sautéed asparagus disks and shallot, and mix everything well.
Pour the filling mixture into the tart shell. Arrange the asparagus spears on top in a star pattern. Scatter a sprinkling of Parmigiano over the top, and drizzle on a little fresh olive oil.
Bake until the crust is golden and the filling is set, about 40 minutes.