Asparagus: the crisp, sweet, earthy taste of spring

Asparagus: the crisp, sweet, earthy taste of spring

The sweet, earthy fresh taste of asparagus pairs well with all those other spring flavours, chives, radishes, fresh peas as well as lemon, garlic and eggs.

The elegant architectural simplicity of asparagus always looks good on the plate. If you get tired of eating asparagus spear by spear, this recipe collection offers pastas, salad rolls and soup, as well as dips. Because, who doesn’t like to eat asparagus with their fingers?

Shaved Asparagus Salad

This may become your favourite way to eat asparagus. Simply dressed with lemon juice and oil, and perfect for a weeknight as it comes together in a flash. Feel free to add a poached egg and chunky croutons to make it a meal.

12 thin asparagus spears, cleaned and trimmed
squeeze fresh lemon juice (or orange if you don’t have lemon)
a long drizzle extra-virgin olive oil (about ¼ c)
sea or kosher salt and freshly-cracked black pepper
3-4 radishes sliced thin
shaved or grated Parmigiano or goat cheese

Make the vinaigrette. Squeeze lemon juice into a mixing bowl, add oil, salt and pepper and whisk to emulsify. Taste, it may need more oil or more juice but it should be citrusy. Use a vegetable peeler to shave the spears into long strips. Toss shavings and apsaragus tips in the dressing. Add radishes and turn on to two plates. Grate Parmigiano over or add a dollop of soft goat cheese.

Serves 2.

Grilled Asparagus with Parmesan Shavings

Thick spears are best for grilling. Cut off woody ends if necessary. If you don’t have a cheese knife that can shave, a vegetable peeler will work. The idea is long thin strips rather than grated cheese.

12-16 asparagus spears
extra virgin olive oil
4-6 shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano

Place spears in a shallow bowl and pour over 1-2 T of extra virgin olive oil. Toss gently with tongs (or your hands) to coat each spear. Place on a medium-hot grill crosswise and grill for about 10 minutes (depending on the size and thickness of the stalks) turning occasionally. The skin will blister slightly and turn brown in spots, which is good, but watch the tips for charring. Place on a platter, finish with Maldon salt and fresh-cracked black pepper and place shavings on top of the spears. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serve 4-6.

Pan-Roasted Asparagus with Lemon Tahini Sauce

1 bunch asparagus
canola oil

Heat oil in a cast iron pan over medium heat. Add spears to fit in. Sauté, turning often, until still green, crisp-tender and beginning to brown in spots, about 8 minutes.

Season and serve with lemon tahini sauce. Sprinkle with sesame seeds if you like.

Lemon Tahini Sauce with Turmeric

½ c tahini
1 handful flat-leaf parsley, washed and trimmed
3 lg cloves garlic
1 t turmeric powder
4-5 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
sea salt and black pepper to taste

Place the tahini, parsley, garlic, lemon juice, turmeric, and 2 tablespoons water into the bowl of a food processor. Blend, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Taste and add more water, lemon juice or seasoning if required for a lemony taste and smooth consistency.

Serves 4-6 people.

Asparagus and Shrimp Salad Rolls with Nuoc Cham
Crisp, light, healthy, crunchy, savoury, sweet and salty salad rolls.

Salad Rolls

1 sm packet rice noodles
twenty 8-inch round rice paper wrappers
20 cooked shrimp cut in half lengthwise (or equivalent lump crab meat or spot prawns)
10 or so asparagus spears
1 med carrot, grated
2 c arugula or watercress leaves*
2 c mint, basil or shiso leaves
1 sm bunch hives or spring onions, sliced lengthwise

In a medium pot cover noodles with boiling water and let stand until softened, about 20 minutes. Drain well and pat dry with paper towels.
Prep your other ingredients while the noodles are soaking. Cut the asparagus into long and flat diagonal pieces or cut thin stalks in half lengthwise. The idea is to have long pieces. When the noodles are ready, fill a large, shallow bowl with very hot water and soak 1 rice paper wrapping at a time until just pliable, about 30 seconds.

Spread a wrapper on a work surface. Lay the shrimp, cut side down, along with the asparagus cut side down. Place the greens, grated vegetables, sliced onion on top of the shrimp and cover with noodles. Cover with more asparagus. The filling should take up about ⅓ of the wrapper. Roll up tightly, tucking in the ends as you go. Place on platter with the seam down. Cover with a damp paper towel. Repeat with the remaining wrappers and fillings. These are best made and served immediately but they can be covered with a damp paper towel and refrigerated for up to 1 hour. Serve the rolls with dipping sauce.

Makes 20 salad rolls.

* Watercress and arugula are available at West Country Herbs in the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market.

Nuoc Cham
(Vietnamese Dipping Sauce)

You can buy this but making your own will taste so much better. It should be a savoury, spicy and salty sauce. Adjust spices and garlic to taste.

½ fresh lime juiced (about ¼ c juice)
lemon zest to taste
3 T Asian fish sauce
3 T sugar
2 T water
½ Thai red chile, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1-3 cilantro leaves and stems, minced (about 1½ t)
1-3 mint leaves, minced (about 1½ t)

In a small bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients. Reserve.

Thai–ish Asparagus Soup

If your asparagus somehow got left in the fridge too long and isn’t tip top, make soup.

3 T canola oil
1 lg onion, chopped
½ Thai chile, chopped fine
3 T finely chopped ginger
1-2 bunches asparagus rough-chopped into approx ½-inch pieces.
½ t salt
½ t black pepper
1 can coconut milk
5 c chicken (or vegetable) stock
1 T fish sauce
squeeze fresh lemon juice
chopped cilantro radish and green onion for garnish

Cook onion in the oil in a heavy pot over medium-low heat, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add ginger, chile, asparagus pieces, salt and pepper and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently for about 5 minutes. Add coconut milk, stock and fish sauce. Simmer, covered, until asparagus is very tender, about 15 minutes. Puree the soup in the pot with an immersion blender or do in batches in a blender. Taste for seasoning adding lemon juice and seasoning to taste. Ladle into 4-6 bowls and garnish with the herbs and vegetables if using.

Serves 4-6.

Roasted Asparagus with Smoky Almond Dip
Oven-roasted asparagus is quick and easy, especially if you have the oven on for something else.

1 bunch asparagus
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly-cracked black pepper
squeeze fresh lemon juice

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Place the asparagus on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, salt, pepper and squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Toss to coat. Roast for 5-8 minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears, until tender crisp and starting to turn brown in spots. Watch the tips for charring.

Smoky Almond Dip

This dip started off as Ajo Blanco, aka white gazpacho, the garlicy almond soup from Spain. It’s even better as a dip for grilled asparagus.

2 c cubed stale bread, preferably sourdough (crusts removed)
¾ c cold water (more or less)
&‌frac13; c whole blanched almonds
2 cloves garlic (or to taste)
2 T chopped shallot
½ cucumber, peeled and roughly chopped
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 t (more or less) Spanish smoked paprika (Pimentón de la Vera)
3½ t sherry vinegar
1 t sea or kosher salt

Toast the almonds in a dry pan until just starting to colour. Cool. Soak the bread in milk (or cold water) for 10 minutes. Put cooled almonds into a food processor.

Squeeze excess moisture out of bread and put in the processor. Add a bit of water and blitz until fairly finely ground. With the motor running, add the garlic, cucumber, paprika, oil and vinegar. Pulse until blended, check for seasoning and thickness, adding more water if required, then blend until smooth. Season to taste.

Chill for at least 2 hours.

Place in a serving bowl and garnish with a dusting of paprika and some chopped almond. Serve with the roasted asparagus for dipping.

Asparagus Freekeh Bowl with Harissa

You could make this with rice, quinoa or Israeli couscous; we like the deep nutty flavour of freekeh. This is also a delicious side dish to have with grilled lamb or kofta. Leave the asparagus whole if that is the plan.

2 T harissa
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T cumin seeds
1 T sesame seeds
1 t sea (or kosher) salt
½ t fresh-cracked black pepper
spritz fresh lemon juice
1 sm bunch asparagus (8-12 spears)
2-3 c cooked freekeh
4-6 radishes, sliced
1 handful Italian parsley, chopped
1 handful fresh mint leaves, chopped
1 c plain Greek yogurt
more sesame seeds for garnish

Mix harissa, olive oil, seeds, seasoning and lemon juice together to form a paste. Slather on the asparagus spears and roast for 10 minutes in the hot oven. Watch carefully.

Remove from oven and chop into 2-inch pieces (on the diagonal is nice) Divide the freekeh into 4 bowls and top with the asparagus, radish, parsley, mint, yogurt and sesame seeds if using.

Serves 2-3.

Asparagus Pasta with Lemon, Pepper, Ricotta and Peas

I like to use Rustichella Abruzzo Casareccia pasta for this dish. It has a lovely chewy al dente texture. You could add crispy pancetta instead of the nuts; cut back on the salt if you do.

300 g pasta (about 6 handfuls)
1 bunch asparagus, washed and trimmed
1 c fresh green peas
1 c ricotta
juice and zest of ½ lemon
2 T shelled walnuts or pistachios, roughly chopped
olive oil
sea or kosher salt and freshly-cracked pepper
Parmigiano for grating

Chop the asparagus into bite-side chunks, reserving the tips. Cook the pasta in salted water according to the package instructions. While it’s cooking, sauté the asparagus in olive oil to soften a bit. Add the ricotta, lemon juice and zest to the pan. Drain the pasta reserving the pasta water. Place the pasta back into the pot. Over low heat, add the ricotta mixture a ladle at a time, along with pasta water as needed. Add peas, asparagus tops, toss gently, season with a generous crack of black pepper. Taste for seasoning, adding more pepper, salt or lemon juice if needed.

Divide among four plates, toss nuts over and pass more Parmigiano for grating.

Serves 4.

Easy Asparagus Tart

Three ingredients—melty cheese, puff pastry and asparagus. Tastes like an asparagus pizza. You could get fancy and add some nice grape tomatoes. Or, if you really wanted to gild the lily you could add thin slivers of fresh lemon peel (tastes so delish roasted). Or not. Adapted from Martha Stewart Everyday.

1 sheet frozen puff pastry
2 c shredded melty cheese (Gruyère, Fontina, Taleggio)
1-2 bunches asparagus, trimmed
cocktail or grape tomatoes cut in half (optional)
slivers of lemon peel (optional)
olive oil
sea salt and fresh-cracked black pepper

Preheat oven to 400ºF.
On a floured surface, roll the pastry into a 16×10-inch rectangle. Place on a baking sheet and score the dough an inch in from the edges to mark a rectangle. Using a fork, pierce dough inside the markings at ½-inch intervals. Bake until golden, about 15 minutes.

Remove pastry shell from oven, and sprinkle the shredded cheese over. Arrange asparagus spears in a single layer over the cheese alternating ends and tips. You could place a row of tomatoes between every row of asparagus, or toss a handful over, along with the lemon slivers. Brush with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Bake until spears are tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 6-8.

Bacon and Asparagus Hash
This is one of those clean out the fridge recipes; a bit of bacon, a couple of potatoes on the verge of going green, a few asparagus spears and some eggs. Best to use a cast iron pan. How much you make depends on what is in your refrigerator and the number of people eating.

Bacon (any kind, Italian, Canadian, streaky)

Chop everything into a smallish dice. Heat the pan over medium heat. Fry the bacon until it’s almost done. Drain on paper towel and reserve. Leave a bit of the bacon fat in the pan, add onion and cook for about 3-5 minutes until it begins to soften. Tip in the potatoes and cook until almost crispy. (Add a bit of oil if necessary.) Add the bacon back into the pan. Stir until ingredients are evenly distributed, scraping up any bits on the bottom of the pan. Break a couple of eggs (if using) on top. Cover the pan and cook until the whites are firm.

Make toast.

Serve on toast with some young goat cheese if desired.

May means asparagus and local asparagus means Edgar Farms. Get to the Downtown and Old Strathcona Farmers’ Markets early to pick it up, super fresh, from just down the road in Innisfail. -ed.