From the annals of ancient Rome to 15th-century India, asparagus has been cropping up for centuries – and it makes a particularly strong impact in this springtime dish. It may be quick to make but this Italian-inspired favourite leaves a lasting impression on the tastebuds.
Recipe & food styling: Aya Nishimura
We’re getting tired of the terms “seasonal” and “local” here in the tastier-looking pages of monocle. Both are painfully overused: too often touted in dull restaurant write-ups and tepid press releases. What could tell you less? Naturally you’d hope that your chef doesn’t cook with past-its-prime produce that’s been shipped from the ends of the Earth. And everything’s local to somewhere, right?
We’re taking our cues from Italy with a springtime pasta dish of asparagus and sweet cherry tomatoes, plus a few anchovies to round things off with a rich hit of umami. The asparagus harvest, however, is more than just an Italian obsession: it is observed in festivals the world over.
This stout-stemmed perennial, native to Europe, North Africa and Asia, has a longer, stranger history than merely prompting a few folksy get-togethers. In ancient Rome, Julius Caesar copped his share of flak from the masses for eating it with oil rather than butter (a laughable faux pas at the time, we’re told). Meanwhile, historian Pliny the Elder preached the benefits of farming it in sandy soil and Emperor Augustus even coined a phrase – “as quickly as cooking asparagus” – to denote a task done with pleasing alacrity. The Romans were also the first to thwart the seasons and preserve the woody plant. As early as the 1st century BC the harvest was taken by chariot (known collectively as the Asparagus Fleet) from the Tiber River area where it was farmed to the Alps, where it was frozen for six months in preparation for the Feast of Epicurus.
Asparagus crops up again in India in the 15th century, where it’s noted for its (purported) qualities as an aphrodisiac in steamy lovemaking manual the Ananga Ranga. By the renaissance, Louis xiv was growing the stuff in his garden at Versailles and the French soon cottoned on to the vegetable’s charms. Writer Marcel Proust once commented that consuming the mouthwatering monocot had transformed his “humble chamber-pot into a bower of aromatic perfume”. (Right – that’s the bit about it making your wee smell out of the way.)
It’s good to give ingredients a seasonal salute now and again – so allow us to hail Caesar’s gluttony for the green stuff and join its legions of admirers. As for cooking times? To borrow a simile from Emperor Augustus himself, it really is as quick as cooking asparagus.
450g asparagus, chopped 2cm diagonally
750g cherry tomatoes on the vine, vines removed
12 garlic cloves
12 tbsps extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
400g pasta of your choice (we used linguine)
8 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
Zest of 4 lemons, plus 4 tsps juice
- Preheat oven to 200c (fan), 220c (conventional) or gas mark 6.
- To create the base of your pasta sauce, place tomatoes, 4 of the garlic cloves (finely chopped), 6 tbsps of the olive oil, salt and pepper onto a baking tray and toss gently. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes until tomatoes soften and begin to release their juice.
- Boil water in a large saucepan and cook the pasta, according to the packet instructions.
- While the pasta is cooking, finish making the sauce. Place the rest of the olive oil and garlic (crushed), and the anchovy fillets, in a large frying pan over medium/low heat. When the garlic begins to brown (but not burn) and the anchovy fillets soften, add three quarters of the roasted-tomato mixture (don’t forget to scrape the juice from the bottom of the tray) along with the asparagus and cook for 3 minutes. Add drained pasta, lemon juice and zest to the pan and season again with salt and pepper.
- Divide pasta into four bowls, top with the rest of the roasted tomatoes and serve while it’s still warm.