A Fret-Free Asparagus Salad
To help you maximize asparagus-gorging season
IT’S OFFICIALLY ASPARAGUS SEASON where I live. Usually this would mean I’d be doing what I’ve always assumed any sane person does this time of year: Locking all the doors, unplugging the phone, going dark on social media, and blanching copious spears. Then I’d make a vinaigrette, some easy lemon-spiked mayonnaise, or a creamy mustard sauce and begin eating them, checking through the blinds occasionally to make sure no one was trying to get in and ask for a bite.
Once I felt safe that I’d gotten my fair share for the season, only then would I start thinking about other ways to eat asparagus.
I’ve never been anything but honest with you about my feelings for asparagus, or about the fact that steaming/blanching them until just bright green, which allows them to assert their mellow grassiness, is my favorite way to prepare them, followed by dipping them into/drizzling them with a variety of sauces/dressings, which I wrote about more extensively here.
But asparagus—so wonderful raw, roasted, grilled, and turned into soups—want to be much more adventurous than I tend to allow them to be. They make a nice quick pickle (which I have used in my Shrimp Louie recipe). And they like to go to parties where nuts (especially almonds and pistachios) might show up, as well as various cheeses (Parmesan, ricotta, goat cheese, etc.), cream, eggs, lemon and vinegars, garlic and onions, and porky things like prosciutto.
And that’s just the green asparagus available to most of us. (I did see one stray bunch of the fat white ones recently at my market, but I left them there because they remind me of veal calves.)
But this year, I’m heading straight to a supremely springy salad, thanks to an inspiring reader chat we had recently. It showcases truly green flavors: raw shaved asparagus, shaved fennel (with its whiff of licorice, which asparagus loves), green peas and pea shoots, herbs, and lettuces, dressed in a light but tart and seductive sherry lemon- vinaigrette, with a little scoop of whole milk ricotta on the side.
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If you are not a ricotta lover you can always take the classic route and shave some slices of nutty, salty Parmigiano-Reggiano over your salad for a very different but still delicious dairy flourish. But I love the way the ricotta makes you really notice the green flavor of the vegetables and the way it plays against the herbs. Oh, the sweetness of spring!
A certain breed of asparagus snob (there are snobs for everything) will tell you to select only the thinnest asparagus stalks. I’ve NEVER adhered to that command. I like some meat on their bones. And for this salad, especially, trying to shave extremely thin asparagus would make your life miserable. So make sure you buy a bunch of moderately fat ones.
I urge you not to make a big deal out of shaving the asparagus or to worry about the mound of scraps you’ll have left over from the process. You can use them, along with the remaining asparagus from the bunch, to make this delicious and easy soup.
And rather than cutting or breaking off the tough pale bottom inch or so of stem as you are usually instructed to do, you can use that bit as a little handle. Lay the spear down on a cutting board, hold onto the tough stem, then run your vegetable peeler along the full length of the stalk toward the grassy tip with a firm sweeping motion. You may need to practice on a few, but you will eventually have a beautiful pile of glossy ribbons.
It’s okay if the grassy asparagus tips fall off when you’re shaving; just add them to the pile of ribbons you’ve created and incorporate them into the salad or save them to use as a garnish. If it’s thin enough, that final slice of each asparagus that’s too thin to continue shaving should also be used. It’s all delicious and beautiful. So please don’t spend one minute fretting over perfection, which is a fool’s errand, anyway. Asparagus season will be over soon!
*RECIPE: Springtime Shaved Asparagus and Fennel Salad
16 to 20 moderately thick raw asparagus, shaved with a vegetable peeler
1 small fennel bulb, shaved (use your mandoline)
2 small handfuls mixed young and/or soft lettuces (I used Little Gem, but Boston, baby arugula, and spring greens are all good)
1 very loosely packed cup roughly torn herbs (I used a mix of mint, tarragon, dill, parsley; basil would be nice; if the leaves are small, leave them whole)
½ cup raw or lightly blanched shelled green peas (you can blanch them in the microwave, covered in plastic wrap)
1 small handful pea sprouts or microgreens (these are optional; I just happened to have them so I used them; they are delicious and pretty)
½ cup roughly chopped toasted pistachios or almonds (for sprinkling over each serving)
⅓ cup good ricotta (enough for a generous spoonful for each serving) or a chunk of parmesan big enough for shaving several nice slices over each individual serving
Sherry Lemon Vinaigrette (recipe below)
In a bowl, gently toss together the asparagus and fennel with enough dressing to lightly coat; taste this. You may want a little salt. Let this sit for 5 to 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, gently toss together the lettuce, herbs, peas, and pea sprouts with enough of the dressing to lightly coat; make sure you shake the dressing to re-emulsify before doing this. Add the dressed asparagus and fennel to this mixture and toss again gently to create a beautiful, evenly distributed tangle. I used my hands. Taste for more dressing.
To serve, divide the salad between four shallow serving bowls and scatter generously with the chopped nuts. Garnish each individual salad with a spoonful of the ricotta, placed attractively at the edge of the bowl, or with a generous scattering of Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings.
Sherry Lemon Vinaigrette
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
A grating or two of lemon zest (I used my microplane)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon maple syrup
Pinch of salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne
½ small clove garlic, grated on your microplane (you want just a touch)
In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine all ingredients and shake until well emulsified. Taste and adjust salt, pepper, etc.
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My father in law was a produce buyer in California’s Central Valley. He knew asparagus growers and the grading system, and I assure you, the skinny stuff was not considered high quality! The fatter, the better, with asparagus, apparently because they have the same amount of fibers, whether skinny or fat, hence the skinny ones are not as tender as the fat ones.
Omg I cannot wait for UK asparagus!! so So Jelly!!!