When I look back now I realize I grew up in Heaven. What kind of Heaven?: acres and acres of Heaven that are quickly fading all over the country. This particular slice was only five and a half miles down Massachusetts Avenue from the very epicenter of Harvard Square in Cambridge.
We moved from a seaside farming and fishing village on the east coast of Sicily to a large operating vegetable farm in Lexington, Massachusetts in April of 1958. My father's uncles had setteld there in 1917 continuing a legacy that had started on that particular property in the 1700's when members of the Winship family were granted the land. Beef and vegetables raised there helped feed the Revolutionary Army. My cousins recently sold the remaining eight acres to the town of Lexington, which, one hopes, will show great wisdom and preserve it as open farm land and continue the legacy that is almost three hundred years old.
One of the first things I remember about the farm when we arrived in April of 1958 was a long, narrow asparugus patch that ran the entire length of a one hundred and twenty five foot glass greenhouse at the top of a slope on the property.
Asparagus was already a staple of our Sicilian/Mediterranean diet, but, now, instead of the small backyard patch my mother tended for our own consumption, we hade crates full of asparagus. Over two months worth of asparagus. So much that you learned to avoid it after a few weeks.
My mother was a genius with food. The villiage we left in Sicily is noted for its cuisine and she was considered one of it's best practitioners. She spoke often of cooking competions that she and her mother had won: pasta with potatoes, rice balls (arancini), rabbit stew, pasta with peas, and asparugus frittata were just some of the specialties.
So, in memory of our little slice of Heaven, and my parents who farmed it, Giuseppe and Lucrezia, here's a recipe for pasta with asparagus, smoked pancetta or bacon, and apple that is both easy and utterly unforgettable.
1 lb. dry pasta - preferalby a thin macaroni like Penne
2 lbs. asparagus - bottoms trimmed
8 oz. smoked pancetta or smoked bacon - I prefer the bacon
1 cup sweet white wine
1 cup half and half cream (you may omit this if you want less calories)
1/2 cup crushed tomato or 1 small Roma tomato finely cubed
2 sweet apples (Gala or Fuji, etc) cored, quartered and sliced.
Olive Olive Oil
Parmiggiano-Reggiano Cheese grated
Chop the 8 oz. of bacon into fine cubes and cook over a low heat until crispy brown. Remove from pan. Retain the drippings in the pan.
Into the bacon drippings add the apples and saute until they change color.
In a large pot of salted water drop in the 2 lbs. or trimmed asparagus and blanche for about one minute. Remove from water immediately and retain the water to cook the pasta in later.
Add the blanched asparagus, the crushed tomatoes, salt and pepper, and a splash of olive oil to the apples and cook on a HIGH heat, stirring constantly for about five minutes.
Add the wine and let the alcohol evaporate over a high heat.
Add the half and half and stir constantly until thickend.
Cook the Penne until EXTRA al dente. This means at least several minutes less than the package directions call for. Extra al dente pasta has a completely different flavor from the mush most people make.
Drain the pasta and add it to the asparagus mixture and stir over a medium heat until all the fluid thickens around the pasta.
Serve topped with a copiuous amount of Parmiggiano-Reggiano.
Serve with a VERY cold Pinot Grigio wine or something similar.