by Alexis Delaney, chef-in-resident of the years past
Last year on a cool, cloudy evening in late March, I set out towards Toiano Vecchio to stretch my legs and watch the sun set over the craggy Tuscan hills. As I approached the abandoned town, a kilometer from the Villa, I saw a guy along the hillside, next to the tiny, ancient cemetery, bending down in the grass. When he came up, he had fistfuls of wild asparagus.
Italians really are an incredibly generous and kind people. I chatted with him for a while, and before I knew it half of his vegetal bounty was in my hands, as well as information on where to search for wild asparagus. Of course, no Italian conversation about food would be complete without strong opinions about how to prepare the tender and flavorful stalks.
The man recommended looking along slopes as the plant likes well-drained soil. He also suggested looking in the shade of olive trees. Once I had identified the “mamma”, a silvery-green, feathery and spiny plant. I began seeing them everywhere on the Villa Lena estate.
As the week went on I also saw families strolling on the road to Villa Lena, scanning the sides for culinary treasure, and then bounding up and snapping off the elusive spears. As with any foraging it is important to not take everything so that the plant can continue to thrive and produce in years to come.
I’m not sure which is better: romping around woods and olive groves hunting for this fleeting, seasonal treat, or bringing them to the kitchen and preparing a delicious meal. Wild asparagus are more flavorful than their conventional cousins, and are best featured in simple pastas, risottos, frittatas or crostini, where they can be the star of the show. I love smearing some garlic-rubbed bread with fresh ricotta and topping it with quickly blanched asparagus tips, lots of freshly ground black pepper and a good drizzle of spicy Villa Lena olive oil. It is equally delicious with lemon and parmesan in this risotto, which always makes an appearance in the Villa Lena restaurant.
Wild Asparagus Risotto
Risotto is a comforting one pot dinner. Originally from Northern Italy, it can serve as a base for any number of vegetables and flavorings. The best known rice for risotto is Arborio, but Carnaroli, Vialone Nano and Baldo are other options.
400 grams wild asparagus, trimmed and cut into ¼ inch pieces
1 lemon, zested and juiced
3 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, diced
300 grams risotto rice
1.5 liters chicken or vegetable stock
250 ml white wine
40 gras grated parmesan cheese
In a saucepan bring the stock to a boil and set aside, in close range of where you will be cooking the risotto. In a large, heavy bottomed pot melt 2 tablespoons of butter and add the diced onion with a pinch of salt. Cook on low until onion is completely translucent. Add the rice and coat with the onion and butter. Cook stirring frequently until rice is translucent. Add the lemon zest to the rice and cook for 30 seconds. Then add the white wine and turn up the heat to medium. Cook stirring often until all the white wine is absorbed.
Add 1 cup of stock and a pinch of salt and cook until absorbed. Continue this process, stirring occasionally to make sure rice doesn’t stick. After ten minutes add the asparagus. Continue cooking the rice with stock until the rice is tender but still has a “bite”. You will have to stir more frequently towards the end to prevent sticking. When the rice is done, turn off the heat, add the lemon juice, a tablespoon of butter and the cheese. Stir vigorously to develop the creamyness. Taste for salt and add a splash more broth if needed. Serve on warm plates.