I love the combination of asparagus with eggs—softly scrambled eggs with herbs served on top of buttered asparagus... asparagus tossed with a vinaigrette and garnished with sieved hard-cooked eggs ("mimosa")... asparagus quiche... "knife and fork" bruschetta with asparagus spears and a thin slice of prosciutto, topped with a fried egg.... To me, this is the stuff of early spring.
In the River Café Cookbook there is a recipe that takes advantage of this classic pairing by adding sautéed asparagus to Pasta Carbonara. For those who have not had the pleasure of encountering the original classic, Pasta Carbonara is celebration of eggs and bacon. It is prepared by adding hot pasta, along with chunks of crispy bacon, to beaten eggs. The heat from the pasta cooks the eggs just slightly, creating a creamy sauce. Some recipes add butter or cream with the eggs. Most recipes are finished with Parmesan. The addition of asparagus spears to all of this is brilliant.
In the current issue of Martha Stewart's Everyday Food there is a recipe for Linguine with Asparagus and Egg. It understandably caught my eye. Thin asparagus are halved lengthwise and then added to the cooking pasta for the last minute. The drained noodles and asparagus are simply sauced with pasta water, butter and Parmesan. Each individual serving is crowned with a freshly poached egg.
I had heard of topping pasta with a poached egg, but had never tried it. This recipe seemed like a good place to start. The idea of perching a poached egg on top of a plate of pasta is of course that when the diner cuts into their poached egg, the thickened, barely cooked yolk will coat the noodles, forming a rich sauce with all of the other ingredients in the dish.
Normally when I poach eggs, I cook them for about 4 minutes. This produces a fully set white with a runny yolk. For topping pasta, I think about 3 1/2 minutes is better. The white is set, but fragile and soft, so that it breaks up easily into small pieces. The yolk is nicely liquid so it coats the noodles in a fluid sauce. If you aren't adept at poaching eggs, check out my post from last spring before making this dish.
The recipe in Everyday Food was fine (and quick--it was featured in a "Dinner 1-2-3" column) as written, but it seemed a bit watery. I decided to make the dish again, this time gently stewing thinly sliced asparagus in a bit of fat so that the flavor of the asparagus was concentrated rather than watered down. For those interested in cooking methods, I basically étuvéed the asparagus—that is, I cooked it covered, over low heat, in a small amount of fat with no (or very little) added liquid. For another post on a vegetable cooked using the étuvée method, see my post on Celery Root Mashed Potatoes.
Returning to the idea of the Pasta Carbonara, my fat of choice for the cooking of the asparagus was naturally bacon fat (and a little butter). Asparagus and eggs are a wonderful combination, but asparagus and eggs and bacon are even better. My version of pasta with asparagus and egg does use one more pan than the recipe from Everyday Food...but I think it is definitely worth it.
Spaghetti with Asparagus and a Poached Egg
1/2 lb. Asparagus, trimmed (about 4 oz. trimmed weight)
1 quart water
1 T. vinegar
2 strips bacon (about 1 1/2 to 2 oz.), thinly sliced cross-wise
1 to 2 T. unsalted butter
Freshly ground Black Pepper
6 oz. spaghetti
3 to 4 T. finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino (or a combination of the two)
Slice the tips off of the asparagus at an angle. Split the tips in half lengthwise. Slice the stalks of the asparagus thinly on the diagonal so that they are the same length as the halved tips. Set aside.
Bring a the water to a simmer in a wide saucepan. Salt to taste and add the vinegar. Set aside and keep warm until you are ready to poach the egg.
In a medium sauté pan set over medium-low heat, render the bacon. Stir and scrape to make sure it cooks evenly. When the bacon is browned and beginning crisp and sizzle,
add a few drops of water to cool the pan. Add a teaspoon or two of butter and a few grinds of black pepper and the asparagus.
Season lightly with salt and toss to coat in the butter and bacon fat. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally until the asparagus is just tender—about 7 to 10 minutes. When the asparagus is ready, turn off the heat and keep in a warm spot.
While the asparagus cooks, drop the spaghetti into large pot of rapidly boiling, salted water. Stir to make sure the pasta isn't sticking. Cook until the pasta is al dente.
A couple of minutes before the pasta is ready, start poaching the eggs. For this dish, I like the yolk to be a little more liquid than usual. I poach them for about 3 1/2 minutes each.
Drain the pasta, reserving some of the pasta water. Add the spaghetti to the pan with the asparagus, tossing to coat with the asparagus and bacon. Add a drizzle of pasta water and a few pats of butter and toss again. Set aside while you finish the eggs.
Lift the poached eggs out of the poaching liquid and set on a kitchen towel or several layers of paper towels. Add most of the cheese to the pasta along with a little more pasta water if the pasta seems dry or tight. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt & freshly ground pepper. This dish benefits from a generous amount of pepper.
Divide the hot pasta between two plates and scatter the remaining cheese over. Top each plate of pasta with a poached egg and another grinding or two of pepper. Serve immediately. Serves 2.
Note: Recipe easily doubles to serve 4.