DSC_0008It is asparagus and artichoke season in Umbria! That means that one also has to be alert for brigands attempting to steal your wild asparagus;  more on that later.

The winter greens have begun to fade from the markets (no more treviso or broccoli rape) and in their place are piles of fresh artichokes and bunches of asparagus.

We are all happy about this situation as everyone in the family loves artichokes. In the States, ‘fresh’ artichokes have such tough outer leaves that we usually steam them whole, discard the stems, and eat them by pulling off the leaves, dipping them in vinaigrette, and scraping off the soft end with our teeth.

In Italy the fresh artichokes still have a tough exterior but once that is pulled off the leaves inside are tender. In the last few weeks we have experimented with cooking artichokes in new ways.

Artichokes come in many varieties. In the Perugia markets, I have noticed three types. A large purple globe variety that is good for stuffing (on left in the photo above), an oblong green variety that I have sauteed and tossed with pasta (on the right in the photo), and small purple heads that one vendor told me could be eaten raw.

When Anne and Oliver were here two weeks ago, we had an artichoke fest, cooking two different types in different ways.

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I used to be intimidated by the idea of cleaning artichokes, but in the last two weeks, I have cleaned dozens of them (there are videos on youtube explaining how to do it). It helps to have a friend, like Anne, to help you peel back the outer leaves. When you start to see more of the lighter colored leaves and they feel soft, you can stop, cut off the prickly tops, and scoop out the inside. Marzia taught me that if you bang the artichoke on the counter, the leaves open up, and you can clean our the hairy prickly stuff inside. If you want to use the stems (and why wouldn’t you?), you need to peel back the tough outer fibers (like peeling rhubarb). Once peeled, artichokes tend to oxidize quickly, so it is recommended that you put them in a bowl of water with lemon juice until you are ready to cook them.

Cleaning is the hard part. If you care to stuff your artichokes, you can fill the inside with a mixture of breadcrumbs, parmesan, parsley, and some red pepper flakes, if you like (this is basically Marzia’s recipe, which she made for us several weeks ago and I then attempted to emulate – no picture, sorry).

If you do not want to bother with a stuffing, you can either steam the artichokes whole (if you have a large enough pot), or cut them up:

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I added some parsley, more lemon juice, salt and pepper. I sprinkled olive oil over the top and put about an inch of water in the bottom of the pan. It took about half and hour to cook them this way. When you can stick a fork through the stems, they are done. We served them with more olive oil on top and a sprinkle of parmesan. This is now my favorite way to make artichokes.

Anne and I also picked up a kilo of these little purple chokes.

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We cleaned them, cut them in half, sauteed them for about ten minutes, and then tossed with them with pasta.

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The following week, Pedar’s uncle Bill was here. His arrival coincided with the beginning of asparagus season. At the markets you can now find both cultivated and wild asparagus. Restaurants are featuring special asparagus menus. La Piazzetta, another one of our favorite places in Perugia, is featuring a three-course asparagus menu that includes asparagus quiche:

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tagliatelle with asparagus:

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and bocconcini of veal with asparagus (Pedar and I both agreed that this is one of the better meat dishes we have had in Perugia):

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Another asparagus dish we enjoyed was a special frittata at Il Cantinone, which featured tender stalks of asparagus sauteed and mixed into eggs that were light and fluffy. I tried to replicate that dish with wild asparagus I bought at the market.

These asparagi are long and thin (I already trimmed the ends off this bunch):

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I sauteed them with a little olive oil:

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And then mixed in some scrambled eggs. The end result was delicious, but not as good as the version we had at Il Cantinone. I think the quality of the eggs really matters.

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The day before I made the asparagus, we were on Monte Subasio with Uncle Bill. As we drove up and over the mountain, we noticed lots of people pulled off to the side of the road poking about in the undergrowth. Pedar thought they might be looking for truffles. But it is not the right season, there were lots of people doing it, and they were all pretty close to the edge of the road. It seems that they were probably gathering wild asparagus.

Two days later this was one of the headlines in the local paper:

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“Asparagus Racket Defeated Five people have been reported to the police: they intimidated the elderly and forced them to hand over their harvest”

Unfortunately, some of the people gathering wild asparagus on Monte Subasio did not make it home with the fruits of their labors. A group of bandits forced pickers to hand over their asparagus and then attempted to sell the purloined vegetables on the streets of Foligno (for €10 a bunch!). After victims reported the crime to the police, five people were arrested and over 8 kilos of asparagus were confiscated (which was reportedly donated to charity). The thieves face fines of €5,000 to €30,000.

Who would have thought fresh asparagus was such a precious commodity? We take for granted that most vegetables are available in the supermarket all year round. While that is somewhat true in Italy (you can always get tomatoes and lettuce), truly fresh – and local – vegetables are only in season for a few weeks. You only get one chance a year to eat them, so you better take advantage of the opportunity – as long as you come by your harvest legitimately.

Update (30 April) — Asparagus Festival!

The 18th Festival of Wild ('woodland') Asparagus

The 18th Festival of Wild (‘woodland’) Asparagus at Pietrafitta