Even though we can get them anytime, foods like asparagus, ham and eggs still trigger thoughts of spring. That’s also when quiche gets its annual rebirth, at brunches and such. But here’s something better: this Italian asparagus, ham and ricotta pie, a variety of torta salata (“savory pie”).
The ricotta stands in for cream and, in place of quiche’s gruyère, there’s a generous sprinkling of pecorino cheese. This recipe (which appears in my cookbook Piatto Unico) came from our friend Sara, shown here in the garden of Il Poggiolo, her Tuscan hilltop home.
Sara made her torta salata in less than an hour, using prepared dough made with butter and vegetable oil. In Italy this dough is packaged in a nifty triangular oblong and unfolds to fit in a pie/cake dish, with higher sides than ours. At home I usually make my own pasta frolla, an easy-to-work Italian dough containing egg, but you could substitute a high-quality prepared crust (avoid ones with hydrogenated fat).
Serve the pie warm or at room temperature as part of a brunch buffet, or pair it with dressed spring greens and crusty bread for a one-course meal.
- Unbleached all-purpose flour for dusting
- Pastry dough for a single-crust pie or a prepared crust
- 1/2 pound asparagus ends trimmed
- 1 medium red or yellow onion
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 3 ounces prosciutto cotto available in some U.S. delis or other cooked ham cut in ½-inch cubes
- 4 large eggs
- 1 cup whole-milk or part-skim ricotta
- 1/3 cup grated aged pecorino Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano
- 2 to 3 tablespoons snipped parsley or basil leaves
- ½ teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
If rolling the crust: Lightly dust a marble pastry board or other smooth surface with flour. Roll the dough into a disk about 11 inches in diameter, dusting the top as necessary with a little more flour to prevent sticking. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch Pyrex pie plate; press it into the pan; trim all but ½ inch of overhanging edges with kitchen shears or a knife; flute the edges or finish as you like. Chill in the refrigerator while preparing the filling.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Angle cut the asparagus in 1-inch lengths. Halve the onion, pole to pole, and cut crosswise in thin slices.
Fill a small saucepan two-thirds full of cold water and bring to a boil. Add the asparagus and cook until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Drain and cool under running water.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter with the olive oil over medium heat. Cook the onion until soft and golden, about 10 minutes; cool. Add the asparagus and ham.
In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs until frothy. Add the ricotta and ½ cup water, whisking until well blended. Stir in half of the pecorino cheese, the parsley, salt and pepper.
Spread the asparagus and ham mixture in the pie shell. Add the ricotta-egg mixture and use a spatula to distribute it evenly and smooth the top. Sprinkle the remaining pecorino on top.
Bake the pie on a rack in the lower third of the oven for 20 minutes or until the bottom crust is well browned. Move to a rack in the top third of the oven and continue to cook until the filling is set, 10 to 15 minutes. The top doesn't necessarily brown much; if you want a deeper hue, brush with melted butter or sprinkle on extra cheese in the last minutes of cooking. Cool for at least 10 minutes on a rack before serving.
Variations: This pie takes well to other vegetable combinations--sauteed zucchini and mushrooms, for example. Salami or cured pancetta cut in small pieces could be substituted for the ham. It’s fine to omit cured meats altogether, but the filling may need a little more seasoning (salt, pepper, herbs) if you do.