If you shop mostly at grocery stores, where the produce may or may not be connected all that much to seasonality, the appearance of one of my favorite vegetables every spring might not mean all that much to you. You’ve been seeing it. But if you’re a farmers market devotee like I am, the first glimpse of local green (or maybe purple, or white) spears in the first warm weeks after winter wanes makes you feel like exclaiming the way Steve Martin’s character in “The Jerk” does upon the arrival of the new phone books: The asparagus is here!
Now, what do you do with it? Roast, broil, braise, grill, stir-fry: There’s really no end to the ways you can cook it (or not – shaved raw is a really good way to go).
The new America’s Test Kitchen book, “Vegetables Illustrated,” is full of ideas for asparagus and dozens of other vegetables. And the book is worth buying for the tips alone, such as how best to store (standing the spears up in a glass filled with 1 inch of water, covered with plastic wrap, and refrigerated); to peel or not (yes if they’re thick, no if they’re pencil-thin); and whether you should follow that old advice to snap them at their breaking point (no, too wasteful).
The recipe I tried for this tortellini salad included another crucial pointer: to immediately plunge blanched asparagus into an ice bath after briefly boiling, setting the spears’ bright color and preventing them from overcooking. It keeps the texture crisp, all the better to pair with the tender cheese tortellini and fresh tomatoes. The salad gets the rest of its flavor from the ingredients in classic pesto, making this ideal for the warmer days of spring and even early summer. It tastes great at room temperature, too, which means picnic planning is in order.
Tortellini Salad With Asparagus and Basil Dressing
Adapted from “Vegetables Illustrated: An Inspiring Guide With 700+ Kitchen-Tested Recipes” (America’s Test Kitchen, 2019).
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
1 pound asparagus
1 pound fresh or frozen cheese tortellini
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
1 small shallot, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed
12 ounces cherry tomatoes or grape tomatoes, cut in half
1/2 cup lightly packed fresh basil
1 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated ( 1/2 cup)
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil over high heat. Fill a large bowl halfway with ice and water. Line a baking sheet with paper towels or lay a clean kitchen towel on the counter.
Trim 1 inch from the ends of the asparagus stalks. If some of the stalks are much thicker than a pencil, use a vegetable peeler to remove the woody exterior from the bottom half of each one. Cut the stalks and spears into 1-inch lengths.
Add the asparagus to the boiling water; cook until crisp-tender and a more vivid shade of green, about 2 minutes; do not drain the water. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the asparagus to the ice-water bath until cooled. Spread the asparagus on the baking sheet or kitchen towel to dry.
Return the pot of water to a boil. Add the tortellini and cook, stirring often, until tender, according to the package directions. Drain the tortellini, rinse it with cold water, and drain again, leaving it slightly wet.
While the tortellini are cooking, toast the pine nuts in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat for several minutes, shaking the pan to avoid scorching, until fragrant and lightly browned. Cool completely.
Whisk together the oil, lemon juice, shallot, garlic and the 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a serving bowl. Add the cooked tortellini and tomatoes, tossing to incorporate, and let sit for 15 minutes.
Chop the basil leaves and add them to the bowl, along with the asparagus, Parm and the toasted pine nuts. Taste, add more salt and pepper as needed, and serve.
The salad can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
Yield: 6 servings
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