The inspiration for this recipe came to me in a gas station. I know it sounds like an unlikely muse, but believe me, this was no ordinary gas station. I was invited to the opening of the first Bistrot on the Italian autostrada: a concept born out of a collaboration between Autogrill and the University of Gastronomical Sciences of Pollenzo. Think Slow Food meets fast food: a restaurant concept which focus on high-quality, local, sustainable and seasonal foods, yet in the context of a busy Autogrill overlooking a bustling highway. I must say, I was impressed. Any initial skepticism was immediately washed away by the fresh mozzarella, handmade pasta and freshly baked pizzas.
I shook hands with the local salame producers that supplied sliced meats for the sandwiches, and watched, spellbound, as a cheesemaker pulled and shaped steaming mozzarella out of a boiling hot vat. I ate a dish of handmade tortelli piacentini with peas, asparagus and agretti that tasted like the absolute essence of springtime, and I’ve been dreaming of how to recreate it ever since. Which brings me to todays recipe: this is my quick-and-painless version (read: without handmade tortelli) of that memorable dish, which includes some if my favorite, fleeting spring produce. Agretti have a very short season which is ending all too soon, so make sure you take advantage of them while you can still find them at the market. (For my state-side readers: agretti are a hard find outside of the Mediterranean, though you might be able to find it at a well-stocked farmers market or a local CSA. If you can’t find it don’t despair, this pasta is still delicious if you omit the agretti and just add some extra asparagus.)
Meanwhile, next time I’m on the road between Milan and Bologna I’ll be stopping at the Autogrill at Fiorenzuola d’Arda for some more inspiration!
Spaghetti with asparagus, agretti and lemon
- 14 oz (400 g) asparagus
- 1 1/3 cup (7 oz 200 g) frozen peas
- 14 oz (400 g) agretti
- 14 oz (400 g) spaghetti
- freshly squeezed lemon juice
- freshly grated lemon zest
- extra virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
For 4 servings
Wash and dry the asparagus, discarding the hard ends. Cut off the tender tips and set them aside, chop the rest of the asparagus stalk into small rounds. Cook the chopped asparagus rounds in simmering, salted water for about 5 minutes, then add the tips and the peas and continue to simmer for another 2 minutes. Remove the asparagus and peas from the water with a slotted spoon, transfer to an ice bath, then drain. Set aside the asparagus tips and a handful of peas for garnish, then blend the remaining asparagus-pea mixture into a smooth paste. Add a teaspoon of lemon juice, a teaspoon of lemon zest, a tablespoon of olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Blend again until smooth.
Meanwhile, clean the agretti, chopping of the roots and washing thoroughly. Boil the agretti in the asparagus water (after removing the asparagus and peas), for about 4 minutes, then drain. Pat dry and lightly dress the agretti with olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste; set aside.
Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water (following package instructions) until al dente, and reserve a small cupful of the cooking water. Drain the pasta and toss with the agretti and a spoonful of olive oil, then dress with the asparagus and pea purée, adding a tablespoon or so of the cooking water if needed to smooth the texture. Garnish with the reserved asparagus tips, peas and a bit of lemon zest and serve warm.