In the spirit of spring

Special to The Times

WHEN the retired carabiniere wedged next to me on the plane to Venice would not stop talking about the wild asparagus he forages in springtime, I figured I was on my way to the Easter promised land. A country where both food and holidays are obsessions from birth had to hold a surfeit of ideas for what to cook on a day Americans associate primarily with ham and lamb and eggs and chocolate, not to mention chocolate eggs.

A week later I was still looking for the great Italian feast dish. I had seen plenty of chocolate eggs -- huge ones, garishly wrapped, in every pasticceria from Venice to Trieste and beyond. And I had spotted a couple of roadside signs on industrial bakeries for colomba, the dove-shaped twist on Christmas panettone that the reference books back home had assured me is a big deal for Pasqua. But where was the turkey of Easter?

The answer came from my friend Diego Orlando, the interpreter of all mysteries Italian.


“What do we eat?” he asked, echoing my question as we passed another “colomba” on a punchboard sign along a highway in Veneto. “Whatever we want. We have a saying: ‘Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi.’ It means, ‘Christmas with family, Easter with friends.’ You cook what you like.”

Hearing that was as liberating as learning you can actually have cheese with seafood in Italy, as I had when prawns arrived sprawling over my ricotta and artichoke ravioli at Ristorante Vesuvio in Venice. I realized I had already found many things I would like to cook for a spring lunch or dinner. In fact, I was stumbling over all manner of great ideas that didn’t necessarily travel. For starters, consider prosciutto cured in beer and beet greens braised in beer at La Lampada, a pub outside Venice where Diego’s friend Giorgio Copparoni cooked us an extraordinary meal that ended with absinthe and two kinds of grappa.

But three dishes in particular -- an asparagus flan, crespelle filled with zucchini and prosciutto, and a strawberry crostata -- would make a fine menu all on their own. Or they could be part of a more traditional meal built around ham or lamb (or turkey).

Three temptations

THE flan was the first course at lunch at Mediterraneo, a wine bar in a stunning little town in Veneto called Badoere that could have been the setting for “High Noon.” There it was made with bruscandoli, which Diego translated as wild asparagus and his beer-obsessed friend said was hop shoots; it was set onto “fonduta di Parmigiano,” a lovely light cream sauce with a granular texture.

That carabiniere from the plane might be able to find the bruscandoli, but commercial asparagus works just as well. The secret of the richness of an Italian flan (sformato) is in the foundation: thick bechamel rather than plain cream. A few asparagus tips left whole add much-needed texture to the flan, elevating it from asparagus pudding.

For the sauce, I substituted Fontina because it has a more mellow flavor than Parmigiano; it suits the borderline sweetness of the asparagus. But the sauce could be dispensed with altogether, especially if the flan is served as a side dish rather than a first course.

The crespelle arrived at lunch in Trieste at Re di Coppe, one of the classic “buffets,” small cafes that serve a limited menu of only time-honored dishes in a city that has been Austrian and Italian and clings to both genetic codes. There they were thick, soft crepes folded half-moon style over zucchini and prosciutto, glazed with a light mushroom-flavored sauce, then topped off with grated cheese and chopped parsley.

Crepes might not seem very Italian, but roll them up and call them cannelloni and you understand exactly where they fit into the cuisine. They are usually made from the same batter the French mix up -- flour, salt, eggs, milk and butter -- and they are sometimes folded into just what the French make of them, beggar’s purses, as I had them in Piedmont last fall. Occasionally they turn up in restaurants in Tuscany, particularly stuffed with spinach and ricotta, but in Trieste they were simply offered as “something very local.”

It was tempting to think of them as Italian enchiladas, but they were far more sophisticated. The zucchini was almost jumping with flavor, barely cooked and still bright green, and the ham added both saltiness and richness. The sauce was the little excess that brought all the flavors into harmony, and the cheese was almost overkill, which is why I omitted it.

The crespelles are easy if time-consuming (they can be cooked a day ahead and refrigerated tightly wrapped to stay supple), and the filling and sauce are even simpler. The technique is very French: Ladle just enough batter into a lightly buttered pan to coat it, cook until the bottom browns lightly, then flip the crepe over to brown the second side. It’s foolproof, and you don’t even need special equipment. A 9-inch saute pan works fine.

Dessert at that same restaurant in Trieste was another inspiration, much more so than apple strudel that was also on offer and was much more representative of where we were on the border of Eastern Europe. Apples and raisins baked in phyllo seem heavier, more wintry than the thick strawberry tart in a dense rustic crust with a very rich filling, almost like a Bavarian cream. That tasted a little dated, though. Mascarpone, and nothing but mascarpone, struck me as fresher and, oddly enough, lighter too.

As with so many Italian dishes, crostata sounds more appealing than the English word, tart. And as with all Italian dishes, the quality of the ingredients is key. Really ripe and juicy strawberries are essential, and for Californians they are in peak season right now, especially Seascapes or Gaviotas at farmers markets.

To round out the meal, you could serve an insalata mista, a good toss of any lettuce, grated carrots, sliced tomatoes and maybe some julienned fennel or red onion.

But to make the whole menu more festive, borrow one more page from the Italians. Pour Prosecco, and plenty of it.


Crespelles with prosciutto and zucchini

Total time: About 1 hour, 30 minutes

Servings: 6

1 ounce dried porcini


1 1/2 cups flour

Sea salt

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups milk

About 8 tablespoons butter, divided

2 cups heavy cream

4 medium slender zucchini, (about 1 pound), trimmed, halved lengthwise then cut crosswise into 1/4 -inch slices

Freshly ground pepper

1/4 pound thinly sliced Italian prosciutto or ham, cut into

1-inch squares

1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

1. Place the porcini in a bowl and pour boiling water over to cover. Let stand until very soft, about 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, combine the flour and 1 teaspoon sea salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk in the eggs and milk.

3. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a 9-inch saute pan until it is bubbly and golden brown, being careful to not let it burn. Add the melted butter to the batter and whisk until very smooth.

4. Wipe the pan clean. Add a teaspoon of butter and heat over medium heat. Ladle in about 3 to 4 tablespoons of the batter, evenly coating the bottom of the pan. Cook until the batter is set and the bottom of the crespelle is lightly browned, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Flip over and cook the second side until it is golden, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Turn onto a plate. Repeat with the remaining batter to make 12 crespelles, using 1 to 2 teaspoons of additional butter as needed for the pan. Place a piece of parchment paper between each layer of crespelle to separate. Cover tightly with foil and hold in a warm oven. Wipe the saute pan clean.

5. Lift the porcini out of the water into a sieve. Rinse under running water to remove any grit. Line the sieve with several layers of paper towel and strain the soaking water into a large measuring cup or bowl.

6. Mince the porcini and combine with 1 cup of the soaking water in the saute pan. Cook over high heat until the liquid is reduced by two-thirds, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the cream, lower the heat to medium and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Season to taste with sea salt, set aside and keep warm.

7. Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter in a very large saute pan (or two smaller pans) over medium-high heat. Add the zucchini and cook, stirring, until all the slices are coated with butter. Season with one-half teaspoon sea salt and one-eighth teaspoon pepper. Add one-fourth cup water, cover the pan and cook 2 minutes. Remove the lid and cook until the liquid is almost evaporated. Add the prosciutto and chives, mix well and heat through. Remove from the heat.

8. To serve, lay 2 crespelles on each serving plate. Spoon about one-third cup zucchini mixture on one side of each. Fold in half to make half-moons. Ladle about one-fourth cup of mushroom sauce over and around the crespelles.

Each serving: 665 calories; 18 grams protein; 35 grams carbohydrates;

3 grams fiber; 51 grams fat; 31 grams saturated fat; 276 mg. cholesterol; 872 mg. sodium.


Asparagus flans

Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Servings: 6


2 1/2 pounds well-washed medium asparagus

3 tablespoons butter, divided

3 tablespoons flour

1 cup milk, room temperature

Pinch nutmeg

Pinch cayenne

2 eggs, room temperature and lightly beaten

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup finely grated Italian Fontina cheese

About 1 cup small pea shoots for garnish

1. Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a rolling boil. Cut off about 2 inches of the tips of 18 of the best-looking spears of asparagus and blanch 1 minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and plunge immediately into a bowl of ice water. Drain, pat dry and set aside.

2. Break off the tough bottom ends and peel the thick lower portions of the spears with a vegetable peeler. Cook the spears in the salted water until very tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from water and drain. Coarsely chop the spears, then puree in a blender or food processor until smooth. Set aside.

3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter and brush into 6 (one-half cup) ramekins, coating thickly. Arrange 3 tips in a fan shape in the bottom of each ramekin. Set aside.

4. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook until smooth and bubbly. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly. Bring to a boil and cook until thick. Season with one-half teaspoon salt and the nutmeg and cayenne. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.

5. Mix the pureed asparagus into the bechamel, mixing very well. Add the eggs and mix well. Ladle into the ramekins.

6. Arrange the ramekins in a large baking dish. Place on the middle rack in the oven and pour hot water into the baking dish to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake 30 to 40 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Set aside on a rack 15 minutes.

7. While the flans settle, heat the cream in a small saucepan. Add the Fontina and stir over medium-low heat until melted.

8. To serve, spoon 2 tablespoons of the Fontina cream on each of 6 small serving plates. Unmold the flans onto the plate and arrange the pea shoots on the side or in a wreath around each flan. Serve remaining sauce on the side.

Each serving: 366 calories; 13 grams protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 29 grams fat; 18 grams saturated fat; 165 mg. cholesterol; 217 mg. sodium.


Strawberry crostata

Total time: About 45 minutes plus 1 hour, 30 minutes chilling

Servings: 8

1 1/4 cups flour

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

10 tablespoons butter

1 1/2 cups imported Italian mascarpone cheese

About 2 pints ripe strawberries, hulled and thinly sliced

1/4 cup red currant jelly

2 tablespoons Cointreau

1. Combine the flour, sugar, salt and lemon zest in a mixing bowl. Cut the butter into half-inch thick slices and add to the bowl. Using the tips of your fingers or a pastry blender, work the ingredients together until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add a scant tablespoon or two of cold water and toss until the mixture just clings together. Gather into a ball. Wrap tightly in plastic film and chill 30 minutes.

2. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch springform pan. Press out evenly across the bottom and about 1 inch up the side. Prick the bottom of the crust all over with a fork. Freeze 30 minutes. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

3. Bake the crust until it is set and lightly browned, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool completely.

4. Spread the mascarpone evenly over the cooled crust. Arrange the strawberries decoratively over the top in overlapping rows.

5. Combine the jelly and Cointreau in a small saucepan and heat, stirring, until the jelly dissolves. Lightly brush over the strawberries to glaze. Chill 1 hour before cutting.

Each serving: 470 calories; 6 grams protein; 36 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 35 grams fat; 20 grams saturated fat; 92 mg. cholesterol; 98 mg. sodium.