One of my favourite stories growing up was the Russian folk tale The 12 Months (Dvenadcat’ mesyacev). It tells the story of a poor orphan girl, who is sent by her stepmother to the deep dark woods in the middle of January to gather the first flowers of spring, the snowdrops (named in Russian podsnejniki, or “under-the-snows”). Her stepmother is looking to curry favour with the young Queen, who wants these flowers for an upcoming celebration. Naturally, there aren’t too many flowers to be found in the Russian woods in mid-January, and the girl ends up wandering through the woods for a while, until she chances upon a strange campfire. Around it are sitting twelve men, all of varying ages, who are singing songs and telling stories. The girl relays her trouble to them, and the “men” find a way to help her – they speed up time to usher in the month of April, as they themselves are the embodiment of the twelve months. The girl is able to fill baskets with those first flowers, which she takes back to her stepmother. The story, of course, doesn’t stop there, and involves a few important lessons about generosity and kindness, but those are the bits that stuck with me throughout my childhood.
The part I loved most about that story were the flowers. The snowdrop came to symbolize everything I held dear: the warming up of the earth, which takes place unheeded for many weeks; the pristine cover of white snowflakes, parting to give way to the most resilient, but seemingly fragile flowers; and the silent embrace of the dark woods around it all, teeming with life, oblivious to the little miracle taking place in its midst. These first flowers were beautiful and delicate, but they were also pioneers, daring to break through the cold and make way for the thawing off of lakes, rivers, and many more flowers. It represented the power of nature, quiet but relentless in its pre-charted path. For me, snowdrops were about change. And for some reason, I have always liked change.
I have already spoken about the deep importance the woods, and nature, held to my family. I have also spoken about my displeasure with the ongoing winter, and my desire for spring. So when I found the first affordable bundles of asparagus at the local store last week, I knew that despite appearance, nature was continuing on its pre-determined path. And just like this asparagus was able to break through the ground (in its heated greenhouse, no doubt, but still), so, somewhere in the woods, I knew the first snowdrops were also trying to make their way through the mounds of snow.
I wanted to honour this first asparagus in a way that would pay homage to my favourite flower, and this dear childhood story. So when I came home and realized I had a container of soft, fresh ricotta in the fridge, the image of this dish materialized immediately. Nestled on flaky puff pastry, in a bed of pillowy ricotta, bright green spears of asparagus herald the coming of spring to the Northern Hemisphere. And I don’t care whether the snow outside accepts this or not. The sharp tanginess of Dijon mustard helps cut through all of the creaminess and provide a nice contrast to the softness of the dough. Together, they make a perfect package, just like those first snowdrop buds.
- ½ a package of puff pastry, defrosted overnight in the fridge
- 500 grams of ricotta cheese
- 1 teaspoon of lemon juice (or a bit more, to taste)
- grated zest of ½ a lemon
- 1 asparagus bundle
- Freshly grated pepper
- 3 teaspoons of Dijon mustard
- A few pinches of sea salt
- If your puff pastry was in the freezer, let it defrost overnight in the fridge. Drain ricotta cheese in a colander for a few hours, or even overnight in the fridge.
- When ready to assemble the tart, Preheat oven to 450F.
- Mix ricotta with lemon juice and grated lemon zest. Add sea salt and pepper, to taste. Taste and adjust flavourings - the filling should be light and just a bit zesty, but not acidic.
- Wash your asparagus carefully. If desired, chop it into 1-inch pieces; these will be easier to eat, but I really like the way the whole spears look.
- Roll out pastry on a lightly floured surface into a shape that is a bit bigger than the bottom of the pie shell or glass baking dish that you are going to use (ensure there is a border of 1 to 2 inches all around the bottom, to make small sides for your tart).
- Butter or oil your baking dish. Place the pastry in it, ensuring there is a 1-2 inch border all around the bottom. If you rolled it out too big, cut off any excess pastry (you can cut the excess pastry into small squares, topping them with extra ricotta and a few pieces of asparagus for little amuse bouches).
- Spread mustard along the bottom of the pastry. Spoon ricotta mixture over mustard. Top with asparagus spears (or chunks, if you decided to chop it up).
- Drizzle a bit of olive oil, sprinkle some more salt and freshly grated pepper on top.
- Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until pastry is golden and the aspragus is a little browned on top.
- Serve with a fresh and sharp green salad on the side for a light lunch. A glass of white wine would also be a nice way to welcome in the spring.