Field of Thyme, by Eileen DiGiacomo.
Recipe below: Asparagus Tortino with Fontina and Thyme
I wasn’t sure what to call this improvisational baked thing I recently made using leftover asparagus vinaigrette. Because it had two Italian cheeses, Fontina and Parmigiano, I wanted to give it an Italian name. Maybe it was a sformata, a type of molded, dense soufflé, but when that preparation includes vegetables, they’re almost always puréed; here I left the asparagus in pieces. A sformata also is typically held together with béchamel, something I didn’t use, so that term was, as it turned out, not at all a match. My construction is more like a savory clafouti, the sweet French flan traditionally made with black cherries, but that’s, uh, not Italian. Torta is the classic Italian term for a baked sweet eggy dessert, with or without a crust. Tortino is the name often given to its savory sister, producing, among other mutations, something resembling a puffy, oven baked frittata. Close enough. I settled on that.
It’s sometimes hard to label dishes when you improvise as much as I do, but I try. I want to make sure I don’t stray too much from the spirit of Italian cooking even when I invent. If I can find a solid category that fits my new creation, I know I’m not far from home.
I liked the texture of this tortino so much, I’m already imagining variations, perhaps with leftover sautéed greens such as escarole, Swiss chard, or spinach, especially if seasoned with summer garlic or young onion. Maybe I’d throw in toasted pine nuts or a little crisp pancetta. I used a good amount of fresh thyme in my asparagus version, which is a natural with cheesy custardy things. But parsley could stand in, resulting in a fresher finish. I’m thinking I’ll try this dish again in July, when I can get perfect cherry tomatoes. Marjoram or basil would be good with those.
(Serves 4 as a brunch or light supper)
About a tablespoon or so of softened butter
½ cup grated Parmigiano cheese
A medium bunch of asparagus*, trimmed, blanched, and cut on an angle into approximately inch-long pieces (if the stalks still seem tough after trimming, give them a quick peel)
2 scallions, cut into thin rings, using just the leafy green part (save the bulb end for another use)
3 large eggs, at room temperature
¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
⅔ cup whole milk
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
½ teaspoon runny honey
⅓ cup grated fontina Val d’Aosta cheese (use the large holes of the grater for this)
About 6 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped, plus leaves from a few more sprigs for garnish
The grated zest from 1 lemon
A few big scrapings of nutmeg (about ⅛ teaspoon)
*The asparagus I used were dressed with a light lemon vinaigrette, adding a little extra flavor to the dish. But freshly blanched nude asparagus will work just as well.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a baking dish, and then sprinkle in the Parmigiano, shaking it around to coat the bottom and up the sides, saving about a tablespoon or so to sprinkle on the top. (I used a 9-inch round dish with 3-inch sides, but an 8-by-8 square would be a fine alternative).
Scatter the asparagus pieces in the pan. Scatter on the chopped green scallion.
Put the eggs, flour, baking powder, milk, crème fraîche, and honey in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse briefly to blend. Add the fontina, thyme, lemon zest, and nutmeg, and season with salt and black pepper. Pulse a few more times to mix everything well. Pour this evenly over the asparagus, and sprinkle with the remaining Parmigiano.
Bake until lightly browned and puffy, about 35 minutes. Let sit for about 5 minutes to firm up a bit before serving. Garnish with the remaining thyme leaves. Serve with a green salad that has a touch of bitter from arugula, chicory, dandelion, escarole, or radicchio.