Michelle DiBenedetto-Capobianco is the daughter of Italian immigrants, mom to three boys and a corporate lawyer-turned-private chef in New York. She organizes small-group tours of Abruzzo, Italy – a land of sprawling national parks, pristine Adriatic coastlines, hidden hermitages carved into stone and rambling medieval villages.
Michelle will be hosting Arthur Avenue Food Tours this May when Danielle and Christian are leading their food and wine tours in Southern Italy.
There are certain recipes that I’m simply unwilling to share – my family’s large-batch jarred tomato sauce (my mother would kill me and besides, anyone crazy enough to do all that work in the late-summer heat has their own way); family heirloom recipes for pizzelle (Nonna Irma’s waffle cookies from Abruzzo) and pasticciotti (Nani’s Sicilian jam-filled pastries); and my caponata and zuppa di farro e fagioli (I’m saving these for my cookbook one day!). I think my reasons for withholding these personal treasures are pretty legitimate, but there are a few recipes of which I am unreasonably protective, among them, my mother’s polpette di asparagi. The thought of others preparing these asparagus fritters unsettles me a bit. There is nothing magical or transformative about them, but they are unexpected.
A specialty of my mother’s hometown of Caltabellotta, Sicily, where they’re made with the bountiful wild asparagus that grows in nearby meadows, most people who’ve had them tell me they’ve never tasted anything like it. Asparagus, eggs and breadcrumbs formed into patties, then fried and simmered in tomato sauce, these incredibly moist polpette are yet another example of the simple genius of Southern Italy’s cucina povera. So in the spirit of Easter and in celebration of the traces of spring that are finally peeking through, I’m sharing with you one of my most treasured and beloved family recipes.
Polpette Di Asparagi
Makes 16-20 polpette
2 cups of thin asparagus (tough ends trimmed) cut into ¼ inch pieces
1 ½ cups breadcrumbs from Addeo's seasoned with a clove of minced garlic and a handful of fresh herbs of your choice (i.e., basil, parsley, mint)
6 eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons of salt and several grindings of freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil for frying
2-3 cups of homemade tomato sauce (I obviously use the aforementioned jarred sauce that we make every August)
Bring the tomato sauce to a gentle boil in a wide pot or deep sauté pan and maintain it at a low simmer. In a large bowl, combine the asparagus, breadcrumbs, eggs, salt and pepper until you have a wet mixture that is still firm enough to stay together when you form the polpette. Heat 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a wide skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Scoop up two tablespoons of the asparagus mixture into your hands and form an oval, slightly flattened patty. If the patty is too soft and won’t hold together, add another tablespoon or two of breadcrumbs to the mixture; if it feels too dense, add a few drops of milk. (You may want to fry your first polpetta before forming the others to make sure it holds together.) Without overcrowding, add the patties to the shimmering oil and fry for about 2-3 minutes on each side (they should be nicely browned). Carefully remove each polpetta from the oil with a spatula and transfer them into the simmering tomato sauce. Repeat with the remaining mixture until all of the patties are in the sauce. Allow to simmer for 15 minutes, turn off the heat and allow them to “rest” for a few minutes prior to serving. The polpette are just as good (if not better) the following day.