Asparagus generally doesn’t spring to mind when we think about Neapolitan cookery, but here’s an example that challenges our preconceived notions. This recipe for asparagi in casseruola comes to us from Ippolito Cavalcanti, the famed 19th century gourmand whose 1839 masterwork, La cucina teorica-pratica, is one of the Ur-texts of Neapolitan cuisine. I actually discovered the recipe via Jeanne Caròla Francesconi, who features this dish, along with quite a few others by Cavalanti, in her mid-20th century masterwork La cucina napoletana. And now I can pass it on to you, dear reader…
While Cavalcanti has some truly elaborate dishes, this recipe for asparagi in casseruola, which you can loosely translate as sautéed asparagus, is quite simple and surprisingly modern in its approach. It’s basically an example of the in padella technique applied to asparagus, with an interesting twist. As usual, the vegetable is parboiled until almost tender, then sautéed in seasoned fat. But in this case the fat is seasoned with prosciutto and mint rather than the garlic, oil and peperoncino that you’ll generally find in this kind of dish today. And for that real old-time Neapolitan taste, your fat will be lard, though oil or butter will also do just fine.
The taste is slightly unexpected but very nice indeed. A more rustic version, perhaps of involtini di asparagi e pancetta. Served with crostini of fried bread, your sautéed asparagus works nicely as antipasto or even a light main. Otherwise it makes a fine side dish.
Serves 4-6 as a side, 2-3 as an antipasto or light main
- 1 bunch asparagus, about 400g (14 oz)
- 3-4 slices of prosciutto, roughly chopped
- A handful of mint leaves
- Lard, butter or oil
Trim the asparagus of their tough bottom thirds and, if they’re thick, peel off their skins. (Slimmer asparagus don’t need peeling.) Parboil the asparagus in well salted water until just slightly underdone. Drain and set aside until needed.
In a skillet large enough to hold the asparagus in a single layer, sauté the prosciutto and mint in the fat of your choice over moderate heat, just until the prosciutto has turned color and the mint leaves have wilted.
Transfer the parboiled asparagus to the skillet and let them simmer in the seasoned fat for just a few minutes, long enough for them to absorb the flavors and become fully tender. Toss from time to time.
Add the remaining mint leaves and toss the asparagus once or twice more.
Serve while still warm.
Notes on Cavalcanti’s Sautéed Asparagus
Cavalcanti gives you the three options for the fat indicated above: lard, butter or oil, in that order. When recipe testing for today’s post I opted for the real old-time Neapolitan option, lard, which was quite good indeed. Interestingly, Francesconi doesn’t mention the lard in her recipe, only butter or oil.
I’ve added my own personal touches to the original recipe: holding back some of the mint leaves until the end for a fresher taste and chopping the prosciutto for neater plating.(The original recipe just calls for a few slices of prosciutto.)
There are two versions of this dish: one—the one presented here—is grasso, or meat based. The other is magro, or meatless, made with tarantello, a kind of salami made from tuna. Francesconi says tarantello had disappeared by her day, and recommends using bottarga in its place. But tarantello seems to be making something of a comeback, at least in Italy. If you live in the EU, you can buy it online.
Ippolito Cavalcanti and his Cucina teorico-pratica
Ippolito Cavalcanti (1787-1859), Duke of Buonvicino, was a Neapolitan nobleman and gastronome. His family was ancient, originally from Florence, where one of his forebears was a good friend of Dante. The family migrated south and settled in Calabria, then under the tutelage of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies,whose capital was Naples.
Cavalcanti’s masterwork, Cucina teorico-pratica, was first published in 1837. The much expanded version we know today, adding numerous Neapolitan dishes, dates from 1839. Perhaps the first example of an Italian cookbook with an explicitly regional focus, the book, right on its cover, says it aims to present “una cucina casareccia in dialetto napoletano“—home cooking in Neapolitan dialect.
Many of the dishes, presented in the Cucina teorico-praticaperhaps for the first time in print, are still fixtures of Neapolitan cooking today: parmigiana di melanzane or Eggplant Parmesan, panzerotti or Fried Pizza, vermicelli alle vongole or Spaghetti with Clam Sauce, pasta e fagioli or Pasta Fazool, sartù di riso or Rice Timbale, minestra maritata or (the misnamed) “Wedding Soup”, pasta cacio e uova or Pasta with Egg and Cheese, just to name a few. Indeed, if you read Francesconi’s contemporary classic La cucina napoletana, you’ll see she draws heavily on Cavalcanti including, of course, for this dish.
The kind of home that Cavalcanti has in mind, if his suggestions on how to furnish and equip a kitchen is any guide, is a bit grander than most. It’s a home where the standard recipe is for 12 servings. And where the “basic” recipes at the beginning of the book tell you how to bone and stuff and chicken or veal’s head and how to make a cold galantine. His recipe for homemade broth, on the other hand, is remarkably modern, even if his flavorings are slightly different from those you’d typically see in a modern Italian meat broth, calling for turnips instead of carrots, for example, and a stick of cinnamon along with the usual clove. And actually, his book is an interesting mix of “high” and “low” cooking, with the former recipes written in standard Italian, and the latter in Neapolitan dialect.
The original recipe for asparagi in casseruola
You can find an (unfortunately incomplete) online version of Cavalcanti’s masterwork online here. A fantastic resource is you read Italian! There you’ll find the original version of today’s asparagus recipe:
Sparagi in cassuola, di grascio e di magro.Cavalcanti, Ippolito, Cucina teorico-pratica (1839)
Bisogna prendere un grosso quantitativo di sparagi, a quali ne toglierai il duro, e con attenzione li lesserai, e sgocciolerai; farai soffriggere in una casseruola delle fettoline di presciutto, o tarantello, con menta, servendoti, o dello strutto, o dell’oglio, o del butiro secondo quello, che vorrai adoperere, ci porrai quindi li sparagi; e quando saranno bene incorporati ii verserai nel piatto facendoci attorno una guarnizione di crostini fritti.
Like so many old time recipes, measurements are basically absent and the directions pretty loose, too. Cavalcanti assumes a sense of proportion as well as basic understanding of culinary techniques.
A final word…
Regular readers may have noticed it was a “quiet” May here at Memorie di Angelina. For the first time in my nearly ten years of blogging, I went a whole month without a single post. Some readers have reached out to ask about the radio silence, but the reason is actually very simple and rather boring: work! It’s been a hellishly busy period at the office, and I’ve been left with little time and even less energy to dedicate to anything else. And so I’m posting this recipe, intended for the beginning of asparagus season, at the very end. But I’m still here, and hopefully now that the rush seems to be over (fingers crossed) I can revert to my usual blogging schedule. Thanks for your patience. It’s good to be back…
- 1 bunch asparagus, about 400g (14 oz)
- 3-4 slices of prosciutto, cut into thin strips
- A handful of mint leaves
- Lard, butter or oil
- Trim the asparagus of their tough bottom thirds and, if they're thick, peel off their skins. (Slimmer asparagus don't need peeling.)
- Parboil the asparagus in well salted water until just slightly underdone. Drain and set aside until needed.
- In a skillet large enough to hold the asparagus in a single layer, sauté the prosciutto and mint in the fat of your choice over moderate heat, just until the prosciutto has turned color and the mint leaves have wilted.
- Transfer the parboiled asparagus to the skillet and let them simmer in the seasoned fat for just a few minutes, long enough for them to absorb the flavors and become fully tender. Toss from time to time.Add the remaining mint leaves and toss the asparagus once or twice more.
- Serve while still warm.
I am intrigued by the use of mint here: I must try the pair with asparagus. Great idea to post the Italian version: such a fun read!
Thanks so much, Simona!
I’ve never been an asparagus fan until I tried the white one in Germany a few years ago. Too bad for me it’s so hard to come by (and EXPENSIVE), but I bet this would be amazing with the white asparagus, too! Looks beautiful, Frank.
Thanks, Christina! Yes, I bet this would be equally good with the white variety.
I though I had left a comment here.
There is something so summery about asparagu. Ours are a little tardy because of the cool, wet spring we’ve had but they are finally hitting the markets. Recently, we had a dish just like this except the prosciutto wasn’t cooked and they added burrata to it, it was delicious but the crispy prosciutto would be awesome!
Glad to hear our post hit your inbox just at the right time. 🙂
First off, welcome back! I’m sure you’re looking forward to the rush at the office being done. Asparagus season is still in full force here in our area, and I noticed that it’s on sale again this week. I’ll have to pick some up as this recipe sounds delicious! Rustic in all the best ways. This is the first I’ve heard about Ippolito Cavalcanti, but I appreciate the backstory. Sounds like he really knew his food! 🙂
He sure did, David! Hope you like the dish if you try it.
Great to see you back; always enjoy your inspiring posts
Thanks! It’s nice to be back and hear from folks like you. 🙂
Frank, the combination of flavors in this asparagus is so simple yet so elegant! Definitely giving this a try. A very interesting and informative read. I’ve been sitting here glued to your website – such a treasure trove of recipes!
So glad you discovered us, Kelly! Welcome!
It’s great having you back Frank! We don’t post often either, as we have the same issues (and recently had some family emergencies too) and we totally get it!
Regarding the recipe now: we’d looooove to try asparagus with prosciutto. It’s a combination we never had before. Asparagus isn’t a vegetables that’s often used in Greek kitchens, but wild asparagus (the thinner variety) is very popular in Greek villages in the mainland. Perhaps that’s the kind of asparagus used in older, peasant recipes when we read about it.
The combination with bottarga sounds divine, we definitely have to try this out too!:)
Thanx so much for sharing this delicious recipe.
Have an amazing weekend (and summer) ahead!
Thanks so much, guys. Nice to know there are other bloggers facing the same challenges. 😉 You have a great weekend, too!
excellent stuff.. whenever I dip into Cavalcanti, I am surprised how modern and cookable it still is…highly reccomended book for anyone who is interested in neapolitan cooking and has a good knowledge of the local dialect – stefano
Very true, Stefano. Thanks for stopping by!
Welcome back but I think you do extremely well at blogging and working at the same time.. I am realizing it is not easy to do both but passion drives you. Your recipes are lovely and I love asparagus. I will give this one a go which will make a nice change to my usual olive oil. lemon and salt dressing.
Thanks, Alida. It’s no easy task to juggle work and blogging, but as you say, if you have passion, you find a way. 🙂
Ben tornato bello !
Fantastic, Frank! We have made green beans with Cavalcanti’s sauce, but I love using asparagus. Also, I had no idea of the history or provenance of the recipe.
And I haven’t had this with green beans, but I can imagine how good it is!
Good to have you back!
Thanks, Evan! It’s good to be back.
I would not have anticipated the combination of asparagus, prosciutto, and mint. How interesting!
Definitely unusual, but I do think it works. Worth a try!
Welcome back, Frank–I’m so relieved to hear from you again!
Wouldn’t have thought to add mint to my asparagus sides–certainly worth a try! You’ve never steered me wrong before!
Thanks so much, Rosemarina. It’s good to be back. And do try the mint, it’s unexpected but I think you’ll like it.
Well, our first new season asparagus should be on the market in less than three months, very welcome as it is my favourite vegetable. Have never seen it prepared quite like this and shall remember to try as soon as . . . done a little differently as I steam instead of putting any vegetable in water and, I guess, oil will be involved instead of lard 🙂 ! Interesting read . . .
Steaming would be fine. Actually, I made mine in one of those asparagus pots boiled at the bottom, steamed on top. Works like a charm.
A fascinating read! Such beautiful and simple asparagus. Love the recipe.
Frank, good indeed receive this post; I thought I had pressed the unsubscribe button!
So sorry, Andrew. Thanks for sticking around!
Good to see a post from you again! Work can really get in the way of life, can’t it? 🙂 Anyway, delightful recipe — asparagus and prosciutto are a great combo, but I don’t think I’ve ever added mint to the mix. Wonderful idea! Thanks.
Work can be a real b**ch sometimes, John! But I’m expecting that the worst is over and I can get back to something resembling normal life. Anyway, the mint really does give this is a little extra dimension that’s quite appealing. Worth a try…
Frank, your timing couldn’t be better as our asparagus season is just now at peak and we’re getting lovely local asparagus.
I have a large bunch of fresh cut (yesterday) setting in water in the fridge. I now know where some are destined for. Thanks for a very interesting read.
Awesome! So I’m not too late after all at least for the readers in northern climes… Hope you enjoy!
*for* members …
Good to have you back! This sounds delicious, thanks, and the history is fascinating. BTW, I cooked your asparagus lasagne this week from members of the UK’s Guild of Food Writers and they enjoyed it so much they all asked for the recipe. Thanks again! Lx
That’s fabulous, Linda! I’m honored you selected one of my recipe to make and tickled pink that they enjoyed the dish!
The one I made was vast and they scoffed the lot, apart from one small slice (as well as two game pies). I ate the leftover wedge for lunch next day. 🙂
You lucked out, I think. It’s even better the next day. 🙂
Dear Frank, I popped in now and then to see if any news and am so very glad you are OK; if work is the reason for your absence than you’re fine 🙂 Unfortunately, it’s too late for asparagus over here but this creation is definitely a keeper since we love everything that includes mint. Thank you so very much and I am so glad you back . Enjoy your weekend !
Thanks, guys! It’s nice to be back… 🙂