Fettuccine with Spring Vegetables in Egg “Custard” Sauce

Once farmers’ markets re-open and spring vegetables appear, they seem such a luxury after months of root vegetables, squashes and winter greens! This is a simple and unusual preparation that seems more decadent and rich than it really is. I learned the method from a housemate in London who was also a student at Leith’s and hailed from Bari, Italy (near the “heel” of the Italian peninsula). It is a sensuous decadent pasta coated with melting slices of zucchini dressed in a “custard” of barely cooked eggs. Prepared correctly, this sauce will remind you of the best carbonara — a flavor-packed, unctous sauce clinging to every strand of pasta. And like carbonara, the ingredients are few, so quality is important.

Costi prepared his mother’s recipe for this sauce with only 5 ingredients: zucchini, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, salt and fresh eggs. I’ve made this dish regularly since I learned it from him, but I also include a touch of garlic as a personal preference (but Costi would not approve). In this instance, I’ve also added asparagus because it was also seasonal and its flavors would marry well with the other ingredients.

The method is simple: thinly sliced zucchini are gently sauteed in copious amounts of olive oil until translucent, then the hot cooked pasta is heated through with the vegetable. Off the flame, beaten eggs are added and gently stirred through to combine. And when I say “copious amounts of olive oil,” I mean enough to make most people faint at the thought of it — when I helped Costi make this dish for a dinner party thrown by our host family in London, he used almost a liter of oil for an 8-person serving! The hostess almost had a heart attack watching him devastate a prized bottle of olive oil she had brought back with her from their family’s last trip to Italy.

I cut back a bit on the amount of olive oil here, but this is about as far down as you can take it and still retain the creaminess of the original. I rationalize the amount of oil in this dish by thinking that 1) olive oil is at least a monounsaturated oil, approved by the American Heart Association for reducing bad cholesterol, and 2) we have this only once a year.

The freshness of the eggs is especially important in this dish, because the eggs are just barely cooked so they retain their creamy texture and do not “set” or scramble. I actually prepared this last spring when we were still on Oahu and zucchini, asparagus, and eggs were all local and fresh. When buying “farm fresh” eggs at the farm or market, let the proprietor know that you plan to use the eggs in a semi-cooked state and ask for the freshest they have on hand. Until I can find all these again in our new local area, I’ll wait and continue to dream of our next taste…

FETTUCCINE WITH SPRING VEGETABLES IN EGG “CUSTARD” SAUCE
Serves 4 persons
This dish contains semi-cooked eggs and, even when using the freshest eggs possible, should not be consumed by pregnant women, young children, the elderly or anyone with a compromised or weakened immune system (including those who are taking or have recently taken a course of antibiotics) without first consulting your physician.

1 lb. fresh or dried fettuccine, or other flat pasta

Sauce
½ lb. zucchini
1 lb. asparagus spears
1 clove garlic, minced
1 ½ cup olive oil (not a typo)
sea salt to taste
fresh grated Parmesan, about ½ cup, plus extra for the table
4 large very fresh eggs, preferably organic and without antibiotics

Bring water to boil for pasta. Warm pasta bowls/plates. (See hints for warming plates below.)

Wash and dry the zucchini and asparagus well, preferably in a vinegar wash. (See original Gai Choy post about cleaning vegetables to remove pesticides, wax and dirt and a link to an NPR story about cleaning vegetables.)

Slice the zucchini cross-wise on the diagonal. Using a vegetable peeler, slice the asparagus lengthwise into thin strips or ribbons.

Wash eggs well, and dry. Beat eggs together with ¼ cup oil. Set aside.

In a skillet or wok large enough to hold both the sauce and pasta, heat ½ cup olive oil and garlic over medium heat until garlic becomes fragrant. Add another ½ cup oil and zucchini, and stir gently to coat vegetable with oil. As zucchini absorbs oil, add another ¼ cup and allow vegetable to absorb new amount. Continue cooking until zucchini just starts to become translucent, about 10-12 minutes. Meanwhile, cook pasta (remember to salt the water just before adding your pasta).

Add asparagus ribbons, salt to taste (but remember that the Parmesan will add saltiness too), and combine to coat asparagus with oil. Continue to cook until asparagus just becomes bright green, about 4-5 minutes. Add Parmesan and stir.

Drain pasta, but do not rinse, and add hot pasta directly to skillet with the vegetables, and stir through to combine. Immediately pour beaten eggs over everything, and stir well but gently. Cover for 5 minutes.

Serve in warmed pasta bowls, garnished with extra Parmesan if desired. (If you don’t always warm your pasta bowl or plate — *guilty!* — this is one dish where you really want to take that extra step.)

With a garlicky bruschetta and glasses of Pinot Grigio or Soave, you’re set for a spring fling al fresco! Happy Spring!

Hints for Warming Bowls/Plates:
* If you’re making garlic bread, put your plates in the oven as it’s pre-heating. Remove them from the oven to put in the garlic bread, and keep covered with a clean towel. Or if you’re like us and use a toaster oven for this task, put the stacked plates on top of the toaster oven while making your garlic bread — if you have 4 or more plates, you may have to rotate the plates around to get them all warm.
* Bring a kettle of water to a boil, and pour ½ cup into each bowl just before serving. Set aside for 1 minute, pour off water and dry.
* Find your warming tray and put it to use! We have one that uses 2 votive candles to keep serving dishes warm at the table, but it can pull double duty here by warming your pasta bowls while you are preparing the meal.
* In the microwave, place a 1/4 cup or so of water in each bowl, stack them and place in microwave for 30 seconds to 1 minute, depending on your oven. Remove water and dry.