Any sort of savoury tart can be made with this recipe, but if you are lucky enough to be in possession of some peppery, foraged wild asparagus and herbs, this is possibly one of the nicest ways to make a meal of them. A wonderfully versatile tart, it can be served in thin slices as part of an antipasto, as a light lunch with some salad, bread and a glass of wine, or packed in a picnic or brought along to a friend’s barbecue.
This pastry is quick and easy to pull together. It’s a very basic shortcrust dough adapted from an Artusi recipe (one for pasticci or savoury pies). You can also use a store-bought roll of plain shortcrust pastry or puff pastry if you’re short on time (start the recipe at the blind baking stage) – but honestly, this doesn’t take long to make. The pastry can be prepared (and blind baked) the night before and the tart simply all put together right before you need it.
- 70g chilled butter, chopped
- 250g plain flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup chilled milk, (or water)
- 1 handful wild herbs
- 350g wild asparagus
- 1 small brown onion, thinly sliced
- 3–4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 60ml dry white wine (or water)
- 6 eggs
- 30g finely grated parmesan or pecorino cheese
To make the pastry, rub the chopped cold butter into the flour until there are no more large pieces of butter left. Add the salt and the milk (or water) a bit at a time until the dough just comes together (you may not need it all). Don’t overwork it – stop as soon as it looks smooth and is neither sticky nor dry. If you’re doing this in a food processor, it’s even easier – blitz the butter and flour together and add the liquid in pulses until it comes together and is a smooth consistency. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
On a work surface dusted with flour, roll the pastry out to 3–4 mm thickness. Carefully transfer it to a pie dish approximately 24–26cm in diameter, and gently press it down into the grooves of the dish. Trim the top edge with a sharp knife. Prick the base of the pastry all over with a fork. If making this ahead of time, at this point you can keep the raw pastry crust in the fridge overnight, well wrapped in plastic wrap, or keep in the freezer for another time.
When ready to use the pastry crust, heat the oven to 180°C.
Blind bake the pastry crust (this goes for store-bought pastry, too) by setting baking paper over the top of the crust and filling the entire pastry case with baking beads. This will help the pastry to bake evenly. If you don’t have baking beads, you can use some dried rice or beans. These are re-usable for this purpose; I keep mine in a jar labelled ‘For blind baking’ so I don’t mix them up with the rest of the rice or beans.
Bake for approximately 10–15 minutes, or until the edges of the pastry begin to turn golden. Remove from the oven and remove the baking beads and baking paper carefully. Return the crust back to the oven to ‘dry’ out the base for no more than 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, wash and pick through the herbs and asparagus, cutting off any tough parts of the stalk and chopping the rest roughly. I like to leave the asparagus long (and if using regular asparagus, cut in half lengthways).
Put the onion in a large pan with half the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Cook gently over low heat for 5–10 minutes, stirring occasionally, so the onions sweat and soften without browning. You may need to add a splash of water to keep the mixture moist and so it doesn’t stick. Add the asparagus and the wine (or water), and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook, stirring, over low–medium heat for approximately 7–10 minutes, or until tender. Set aside to cool.
Beat the eggs together gently with a fork. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the cooled asparagus mixture, along with the chopped herbs and cheese, to the eggs. Pour the mixture over the pastry and bake in the oven for approximately 20–25 minutes.
You can use any herbs here. Wild ones common to southern Tuscany would be wild fennel fronds, calamint, wild garlic, nettle and dandelion greens – a mixture of these adds fragrance and zingy character. But otherwise, a mixture of common fresh herbs such as thyme, marjoram, chives, mint and basil would be the next best thing. You can use regular asparagus here too, but try to get the thinnest ones possible. You can even skip the pastry crust.
In Italy, wild asparagus (Asparagus acutifolius) looks just like cultivated asparagus but a very thin version that’s usually dark green verging on purple. It shouldn’t be confused with Ornithogalum pyrenaicum, also known as Prussian or Bath asparagus, which has a long, thin stem with a top of young flower shoots that resemble the tips of cultivated asparagus.
If you are foraging for the asparagus yourself, there is some good advice in Patience Gray’s classic book, Honey from a Weed (1986). She says that the long shoots are only tender at the top, so it’s best to break them off at a length of 8cm, which also allows the plant to continue developing shoots.
Recipe taken from Acquacotta by Emiko Davies
Discover the cuisine of a secret part of southernmost Tuscany, a sliver of land known as La Costa d’Argento – the Silver Coast. Named for the shimmery salt-and-pepper sand along this part of the Tyrrhenian Sea, it is a region of rolling hills, long beaches, overgrown fig trees, rambling vineyards – and rich culinary history. In Acquacotta, Tuscan-based, Australian-born writer and photographer Emiko Davies has compiled and adapted her Italian family’s best-loved recipes from Capalbio, Monte Argentario, Giglio Island and inland to the hot springs of Saturnia and the ancient Pitigliano. In words and pictures, Emiko guides readers through the use of local ingredients, as well as sharing the history of rustic, storied dishes including scampi and potato soup, hand-rolled strozzapreti noodles, spinach and ricotta tortelli, chestnut gnocchi and the classic fig and chocolate bread, pagnotella. Plus, of course, the book’s namesake acquacotta, a quintessential Maremman peasant dish that captures the spirit of this special place.
You can purchase Acquacotta at cooked.com.
Published by Hardie Grant Books.