Although I'm writing out of season, asparagus is a delightful vegetable best enjoyed in the spring, or à la Apicius, in a frittata. Here, my modern adaptation of a classical asparagus and egg recipe, plus a brief history of the plant.
A photo of the baked egg dish in its pan (I must say, I have some affinity for radial symmetry!).
Given their place in history, the enterprising Romans began organized cultivation of many vegetables and other plants we take for granted today. Asparagus is one of these. Cato the Elder elaborately describes the cultivation of asparagus shoots, a process that includes laying down hay and manure, burning the soil, and weeding regularly.
Despite its involved growing process and its funny effect on urine, people continued eating asparagus in different forms. Maybe the odor was masked by other stinky things — the Romans could have been so used to the stench of the subpar sanitation that they weren't bothered by something like a vegetable. If only, I muse.
This recipe was one of the many ways asparagus was cooked. It belongs to a family of dishes called patinae, named for the wide, shallow metal pan they're cooked in (which has since given its name to the modern dish of paella and to the greenish film that forms on old bronze things).
There are over a dozen patina recipes recorded in Apicius, and they cover the whole gamut — one is made with elderberries, another with chicken gizzard, and another still, my personal favorite, is made with the deliciously aromatic combination of roses and calves' brains. So as you can see, these dishes have little in common, except for their form — being cooked in a patina. This reminds me of the things we call casseroles. The contents of each casserole vary widely, but every recipe is named for the shape of the dish it's made in.
Many of these patinae happen to call for eggs. For modern palates, this may seem awfully familiar — eggs + pan = omelettes, frittatas, quiches, and other typical breakfast dishes. However, as we've seen, the Romans likely did not eat patinae for breakfast. Instead, they were probably served with meat and vegetable dishes and gallons of wine (possibly that much) for dinner.
The Latin recipe for this dish is titled Aliter patina de asparagis or "another asparagus patina." The first one was very similar, except that it included figpeckers. If you were wondering, these are a type of warbler (either the garden or the Orphean), little, sweetly singing birds native to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. That first recipe reminded me quite a bit of the French and their ortolans — both birds are related, and both were delicacies in their respective cultures.
Rather than covering my head with a towel and shamefully eating these birds (or coming up with a substitute), I chose to avoid that recipe, plain and simple. Not only is this species not found in the States, but, as you can tell, I have some qualms about cooking songbirds in my frittata! All that aside, here's the (other) recipe for an asparagus patina from Apicius, plus my English translation:
Adicies in mortario asparagorum praecisuras quae proiciuntur, teres, suffundes vinum, colas. Teres piper, ligusticum, coriandrum viridem, satureiam, cepam, vinum, liquamen et oleum. Sucum transferes in patellam perunctam, et, si volueris, ova dissolves ad ignem, ut obliget. Piper minutum asparges.
Add to a mortar asparagus trimmings that have been thrown out, grind, pour over wine, and strain. Grind pepper, lovage, fresh coriander, savory, onion, wine, liquamen, and oil. Transfer the juice to an oiled patina and, if you wish, separate eggs over the fire so it binds together. Sprinkle with ground pepper.
As I was reading, I found two small issues with the ancient recipe. Neither savory nor lovage is within easy reach of most modern cooks, myself included. With some casual detective work, I found that savory is close in flavor to both sage and thyme. Having the latter, I chose to make that trade. Lovage is related to celery, so I swapped in celery seed. Bearing those teensy changes in mind, here's my rendition of the classical recipe:
2 dozen shoots of asparagus
¼ large white onion
8 sprigs of cilantro
6 sprigs of thyme
¼ cup + 1 tsp dry white wine
1 tsp of liquamen
¼ tsp of pepper
⅛ tsp of celery seed
Chop off and discard the white bottoms of the asparagus, leaving the green stalk and tip. Bring a pot of water to a boil and add the asparagus. Cook for about 5 minutes or until the shoots are deep green and just limp. Drain off the water and leave the asparagus to cool.
Slice the tips (about the top two inches) off and add to a mortar. Grind, soak in wine for a couple of minutes, then pour into a small colander or other strainer and press out any remaining liquid. I'm not entirely sure what the point of this step is, but such are ancient recipes!
Return to the mortar, then add the cilantro, thyme, liquamen, the remaining wine, pepper, and celery seed. Grind these all together until they form a green pulp. Mince the onion, then add to a small pan with olive oil and sauté until soft and translucent.
Crack the eggs and beat them in a bowl, stirring in the onion and the herb mixture until smooth. Pour into a lightly greased baking pan (I used a pie dish, but this should be something that can keep a round shape for the patina). Decorate with some of the remaining asparagus stalks. Bake for about 20 minutes at 375ºF until the eggs have set.
Photos of the ingredients, the finished patina, and a figpecker. Lucky for it, I chose to make the second recipe!
This recipe is a long one — I'll be the first to admit that. But I'll also admit it's a delicious one. The eggs set nicely, and the herbs were tasty, even though there were some large cilantro leaves because I didn't pulverize them quite enough. If you're so inclined to make this, I would recommend adding a generous pinch of salt. The liquamen just wasn't briny enough, I didn't think.
Although we may not think of frittatas as side dishes for dinner, this recipe is yet another example of the patent parallels between modern and ancient dining. And if you give it a couple of hours, you'll encounter the unavoidable side effect of asparagus, for which we must dearly thank the Romans!