The first time I had “asparagus ketchup” I was sitting at a sidewalk table at Bar Pitti in the Village with my Time For Dinner co-authors Alanna and Pilar, and our editor, Lia. We had split a bottle of 2006 Toscana Castello di Ama rose, the name of which I remember only because I emailed myself a photo of the label so I’d be able to track it down later. It was that special.
Then again, just about anything seems special to me when I’m having it at Bar Pitti – and not just because the place is a New York institution. When I worked at Real Simple a thousand years ago I was one of five editors who had babies within a few months of each other, and at least once or twice a summer we’d make a point to take the subway out of midtown, out of our tightly packed worlds of meetings (and pumping) and deadlines (and pumping) to grab some polpettine and a glass of wine at Bar Pitti. One glass usually became two and sometimes more, and before we knew it, the afternoon was shot (as was the breast milk), and writing the “50 Gifts Under $50″ story was just going to have to wait til tomorrow. Since we were all new moms, we’d hit on the usual topics – how long is too long to share a bed with the baby, how you know when it’s teething and when it’s worse, whatever Caitlin Flanagan was making people mad about…But I think what I loved most about these lunches was that it felt so good to be irresponsible for a few hours. There was not a whole lot of wiggle room in our schedules, so a midday glass of wine downtown was about as wild as things were going to get. For me, at least. In the next few years the five of us went our separate ways — some to different jobs, some to different coasts — but I’ve channeled the vibe of our lunches every time I’ve eaten at Bar Pitti since. Because of those moms, everything tastes good to me there. Every occasion seems sweeter than it probably is.
The second time I had asparagus ketchup was decidedly less romantic. It was last week, when I debuted it at my family table. Of course, “asparagus ketchup” is not what they called it at Bar Pitti. (This is what happens when babies move on from breast milk — you start sucking all the sentiment out of your favorite dishes if it means your kids might be more likely to take a bite.) Bar Pitti just called it cold asparagus sauce and poured it over a chilled pounded chicken breast like a glaze on a cake. It could not have been a more refreshing summer meal. When Alanna asked the waiter how the sauce was made we couldn’t believe it was just mustard, olive oil, and asparagus. Depending on the mood you’re in, we later found out, you could add water or broth to turn it into soup.
You could also add more asparagus to make it thick like ketchup. And then you can crust the chicken you’re serving it with so not even a shred of the old meal exists the way you remember it. But I’m not bitter. I don’t need to exactly replicate my Bar Pitti dishes at home. In fact I kind of like those meals and memories to stay right where they are — at Bar Pitti at an outside table with friends and a polished-off bottle of rose.
For asparagus “ketchup:” Boil one bunch asparagus (about a dozen and half stalks) for 4-5 minutes, reserve about 1/4 cup of hot water, and immediately plunge asparagus in an ice bath to stop further cooking and retain bright green color. Chop asparagus in large pieces and add to a blender with a heaping tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1/3 cup olive oil, salt, pepper, small squeeze of lemon, and a little reserved water. Blend/Liquefy until you reach the desired consistency. This is one of those feel-your-way recipes, so you might have to add more water until you get it the way you want it. (If you want soup, add about 1/4 cup of chicken or vegetable broth at a time until it looks right.) Chill in the fridge until you’re ready to use.
For chicken: Pound four boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Set up your dredging stations: a rimmed plate with two lightly beaten eggs, a plate with a mound of flour (salted, peppered, and dry mustard-ed if you have it), a plate with a huge mound of bread crumbs (or Kellogg’s corn flake crumbs, or panko). Dredge your chicken pieces first in the flour, then in the egg, then in the crumbs. Sauté each breast in olive oil over medium-high heat for about 3 to 4 minutes a side. Serve with asparagus sauce and regular ketchup if you must.