Spring has finally sprung here in central Virginia after a long, hard winter. With the warmer temperatures, one of my all-time favorite vegetables is in its prime. This vegetable and I have quite a few things in common. We are both tall. We are both thin. We are both good for you. And we both had a remarkable growth spurt. Height was not something I was gifted with during my earlier years. I was always a bit of a short, squat fella, perhaps more comparable to a potato or a rutabaga. That all began to change just as I prepared to leave home and embark upon my college experience. I went through my growth spurt and gained several inches over the course of a few months. Not only was this physically painful, but it wreaked havoc on my clothing. One look at my jeans and you would think I was waiting for the next big flood. The vegetable I write about today is capable of growing at a faster rate than I ever did. It can easily gain several inches in just one day. No small feat for these luscious green stalks sprouting up from the ground reaching for the heavens. Surely you’re on to me at this point. The vegetable we are discussing and eating today is none other than the mighty asparagus!
Not only are they visually stunning in their appearance, they are versatile, healthy, and darn delicious. Although there are many preparation methods for these little stalks of green, I recently came to the realization that I’m in an asparagus rut. I cook it the same way, nearly every single time. Although there’s nothing wrong with roasting asparagus in the oven at a very high temperature or steaming it until it’s a vibrant green color, I wanted to expand my horizons. I wanted to encapsulate the feeling of spring and put it on a plate. The gears in my head started to turn, which can sometimes be quite a scary thing. After some careful thought and consideration, I went outside my comfort zone and decided to create a warm asparagus salad. I drew some of my inspiration from recipes I found online, but I still managed to put that Taste Bud twist on things by adding some exciting and bold flavor profiles. With the outcome of this dish very much uncertain, I made a list, rounded up my ingredients, took a deep breath, and got down to business.
To make this warm asparagus salad, here’s what you’ll need:
1 pound of fresh asparagus
1 large shallot, or half of a red onion
1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons of chopped basil
3 pieces of diced cooked bacon
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons of sugar
2 tablespoons of olive oil
Salt and pepper (to taste)
Not only is this salad easy to make, but it’s also pretty affordable during the spring, since in-season ingredients are generally cheaper. The first step is to do the asparagus snap test. Take one stalk of your fresh asparagus (don’t even think about using that slimy stuff from a can) and bend it toward the bottom of the stalk until it snaps. Wherever it naturally snaps is about how much you should trim off of your remaining asparagus spears. As a general rule of thumb, you’ll usually have to lob off around 2-3 inches. You can either discard or save this part of the asparagus for vegetable stock, since these end pieces will be quite woody and inedible. Now that you have removed the tough part of your asparagus, the remaining parts should be tender and delicious.
Get out a sharp knife and cut your asparagus into little rounds. We are going for fairly tiny pieces here. Start at the bottom of the spear and go all the way up to the tip. When you’ve chopped them all up, they should look like this:
Now it’s time to make this a warm salad. We add a little heat to the mix by placing our chopped asparagus into a pan, with a drizzle of olive oil. Put the pan on the stove over a low to medium heat. The goal here isn’t to cook the asparagus until it’s a pile of mush. We simply want to let them soften in the pan for a few minutes until they are tender, but still retain a bit of their crunch.
After only 2-3 minutes they should be perfect. Add a little bit of salt and pepper at this point. Dump the soft, but still slightly crunch asparagus into a mixing bowl.
This will serve as the base for our salad. The asparagus will be the stars of the salad, but it’s time to add the supporting flavors. Let’s work quickly, since the warm asparagus pieces will essentially act like little sponges and soak up any flavors you add at this point. First, let’s add one finely-diced large shallot. If you don’t have a shallot, you could easily substitute about half of a red onion. This will create a bright color combination that will mimic the spring colors you might see out of your own kitchen window.
Aren’t those colors just awesome? I always think about how food is going to look when it hits the plate, because we truly do eat with our eyes first. To brighten things up a bit more from visual and taste perspectives, we turn to my friend the lemon. Nothing really wakes up your taste buds more than a squirt of sour citrus. Plus, the lemon is a natural pairing with asparagus. Add the zest and juice of one large lemon. When I say the zest, I mean the yellow part of the lemon that can be removed with a grater or even a knife. Be sure not to get any of the white part beneath the zest, as it has a very bitter flavor and won’t be pleasant. The zest contains tons of natural oils and is simply bursting with flavor! Make sure you zest before you get the juice. It just won’t work out if you try to do it the other way around.
Now that you’ve got an acidic bite with your lemon, let’s balance that out with some sweet things. Add your sugar and chopped basil. Both ingredients will add a delicate sweetness, serving as a counterpart to the sour notes we just added.
Now that we have added some sweetness, let’s put in some big salty flavors. That means it’s time to get cheesy by adding your grated Parmesan cheese.
It’s no secret that I have an extreme weakness for salty things, so I don’t stop with the cheese. It’s time to bring out one of the biggest heavy hitters in the culinary arena. It’s time to summon the big guns. It’s time to bust out the bacon. Triumphantly add your diced, cooked bacon to the mixture.
Sigh. I’m in love. You know what coming next. Oh yeah, another picture of the bacon!
Finally, add your olive oil over the mixture and give everything a BIG stir. Taste for salt and pepper and add either one accordingly.
After it’s all mixed, it’s ready! Grab a plate and serve it up.
Grab a fork and dig in! It’s the perfect spring bite. The asparagus will still be warm and slightly crunchy, with a fresh, almost grassy flavor. The lemon will add a big acidic bite, while the sugar and basil will balance that out with their subtle sweetness. The bacon and cheese will deliver the salt needed to make this pure spring satisfaction.
This salad doesn’t refrigerate well, but odds are you won’t have too many leftovers. This would be the perfect accompaniment to some grilled chicken or fish. As you savor this salad, let it be a gentle reminder of spring and new beginnings. Be thankful for the vegetable that goes through a tremendous growth spurt, deftly sprouting forth from the ground, just so it can wind up on your plate. Spring and asparagus. They go hand in hand. Most importantly they go from ground to plate and then from hand to mouth.
What is your favorite way to prepare asparagus? Share your ideas with me in the comments section!
The Taste Bud