Asparagus season is upon us, so let’s celebrate
Wed., May 24, 2023
Yogurt and feta make this asparagus pasta light and springy, piquant and creamy. It can be served hot or warm, but also works well at room temperature. (RYAN LIEBE/New York Times)
Asparagus season sneaks up on me every year. I anticipate it so hungrily, so ardently, that I have to put it out of my head as May approaches. Stay calm, I tell myself on the way to the farmers market, asparagus will be here soon enough.
Then, suddenly, there it is, in bunches and bunches of mauve-tipped stalks, as many as I can carry home, with more on the way. It’ll keep coming through June until – with cucumbers and the first cherry tomatoes on the horizon – the cycle of longing begins again.
Once I get my hands on those first bunches, I’ll cook them as simply as possible, perhaps a speedy sear in a hot buttered pan or a brief rendezvous in the steamer basket until they turn bright green. With those first asparagus, I won’t even pause for a hollandaise, so eager am I to eat my fill. At last, the frenzied feed.
As the season progresses, I’ll slow down. By mid-May, I’ll be granted the patience required of actual recipes, taking my time to explore asparagus’s nuances beyond its fresh and grassy succulence.
Simmering the stalks into a velvety soup, for example, softens their flavor and brings out their sweetness. I toss leeks and fennel into the pot to play this up even more, letting their edges caramelize. A zucchini gives the broth body once everything is puréed. As a final touch, I sauté the asparagus tips until just tender, then float them on top of this bright green elixir.
Fresh asparagus is also excellent raw, especially shaved into ribbons. This takes a few minutes, but after a soak in ice water, which curls the strands into a saladlike tangle, you’ll have a crisp, ethereal topping for all kinds of earthy dishes. Here, I season the strands with sesame and scallions and scatter them over a savory asparagus-mushroom grain bowl, crowned with a jammy egg. It makes a highly satisfying meal, and like all three of the recipes here, it’s meatless to boot.
And finally, asparagus season shall not pass without the stalks communing with a bowl of pasta. Inspired by a recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, I mixed them with yogurt and feta for something piquant and creamy but still on the light and springy spectrum.
The delights of asparagus are so varied, how can you possibly satisfy a year of craving in six weeks? Don’t rush it though, and keep calm. Asparagus has arrived.
A sauce of tangy feta and Greek yogurt (inspired by a recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi) anchors the components of this creamy, vegetable-filled pasta, and the combination of asparagus and peas makes it especially colorful and perfect for spring. Although the textures are at their most supple when served hot or warm, this dish also works well at room temperature, served as a pasta salad.
8 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 cups plain Greek yogurt
1 cup frozen green peas, thawed
7 garlic cloves (3 finely grated or minced, 4 thinly sliced)
1 teaspoon kosher salt (Diamond Crystal), plus more as needed
1 pound short pasta, such as campanelle, shells, fusilli or orecchiette
½ teaspoon red-pepper flakes, plus more to taste
1 bunch asparagus (about 1 pound), trimmed and cut into ½-inch pieces
8 ounces feta, crumbled into large chunks
Juice of ½ lemon, plus more to taste
¼ cup mint leaves, torn
3 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
In the bowl of a food processor or blender, combine 5 tablespoons olive oil, the yogurt, ⅔ cup peas, the grated garlic and 1 teaspoon salt. Pulse until the sauce is no longer chunky, scraping the sides with a rubber spatula. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente according to the package directions. Drain.
While the pasta is boiling, add the sliced garlic to a large skillet, along with the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, ¼ teaspoon red-pepper flakes and a big pinch of salt, and place over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic turns golden at the edges, 2 to 5 minutes.
Add the asparagus and remaining ⅓ cup peas to the skillet and sauté until just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. If the pan looks dry, add a tablespoon or two of water.
After draining, add the warm pasta to the yogurt mixture in batches, stirring in between so the sauce doesn’t curdle. Stir in the asparagus mixture, feta, remaining ¼ teaspoon red-pepper flakes and the lemon juice. Taste and add more salt, red-pepper flakes or lemon juice if needed. Drizzle with olive oil, garnish with mint leaves and scallions, and serve warm.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Asparagus Mushroom Grain Bowl
A savory, gingery mix of seared mushrooms and asparagus makes the main topping of this hearty grain bowl, which is rounded out by a jammy egg and a salad of shaved asparagus, scallion and sesame. Although shaving the asparagus for the topping does take a few minutes to do, it’s worth the extra effort for its crisp texture next to the soft sautéed vegetables. And the dish will still be ready in about half an hour. Use your favorite cooked grains here: Brown rice and farro are chewy and earthy, while quinoa and white rice are more tender and gentle in flavor.
8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
1 bunch thick asparagus (about 1 pound), ends trimmed
1 bunch scallions, white parts separated from greens
3 tablespoons neutral oil, such as grapeseed, safflower or avocado
2 garlic cloves, finely grated or minced
1 (1-inch) piece ginger, finely grated or minced
2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari, plus more for drizzling
1/2 teaspoon gochugaru or red-pepper flakes, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
Fine sea or table salt
2 teaspoons white or black sesame seeds
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil, plus more for drizzling
4 cups hot cooked grains, such as rice (brown or white), farro, quinoa or fonio
2 jammy eggs, halved (see Tip)
Thinly slice half of the shiitake mushroom caps and set aside. Finely chop remaining mushroom caps.
Fill a bowl with ice water. Pick out 6 of the thickest asparagus spears and, using a vegetable peeler, peel long ribbons from each stalk until you’re left with thin planks that are too awkward to slice. Immediately add the ribbons to the ice water. Cut remaining asparagus (including the leftover planks) into 1-inch lengths. Set these cut pieces aside for cooking.
Thinly slice the scallion greens lengthwise into long strips and add to the ice water with the asparagus ribbons. Finely chop the scallion whites.
In a medium saucepan on medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon neutral oil and the scallion whites. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes until they turn golden at the edges. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, along with the finely chopped mushrooms, garlic and ginger, and cook for 1 minute, until fragrant. Add soy sauce and gochugaru or red-pepper flakes. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes, until reduced, then add the sliced mushrooms. Continue to cook for another 5 to 7 minutes, until the mushrooms have completely softened.
Increase the heat to medium-high and add asparagus pieces to the pan. Add 1 tablespoon of rice vinegar and the honey. Let cook until the asparagus is crisp-tender, 3 to 5 minutes, adding a tablespoon or two of water to the pan if it dries out. Taste and add salt if needed, and remove from heat.
Drain the asparagus ribbons and scallions and pat or spin dry in a salad spinner. Add to a bowl and toss with remaining 1 teaspoon rice vinegar, the sesame seeds, sesame oil and salt to taste.
Divide the grains across four bowls and top with some of the cooked mushroom and asparagus. Add the asparagus ribbon salad and jammy eggs. Drizzle with more soy sauce and sesame oil and garnish with a pinch of red-pepper flakes for serving.
Tip: To make jammy eggs, fill a large pot with 1 inch of water, cover and bring to a boil. Gently lower the eggs into the water, cover and cook for 7 1/2 minutes. Fill a large bowl with water and ice. Transfer eggs to the ice water. Cool for at least 10 minutes before peeling (either in the ice water or under running water).
Yield: 4 servings
Asparagus, Spinach and Leek Soup
This silky, verdant soup gets its color from a mix of green vegetables. Asparagus is the dominant flavor, with fennel and leeks adding sweetness, zucchini its plush texture, and spinach and herbs their earthy mineral character. The color is at its brightest right after puréeing and will darken as it sits, but this won’t affect its rich, complex flavor. If the soup thickens too much after cooling, add a little broth or water when you reheat it.
2 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 leeks, white and light green parts, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
2 teaspoons kosher salt (Diamond Crystal), plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 large fennel bulb with fronds, trimmed and diced (save the fronds)
2 medium zucchini (about 12 ounces), trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 bunch asparagus (about 1 pound), trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
4 cups vegetable stock
1 cup cilantro, mint or parsley leaves and tender stems, chopped
1 cup dill fronds and tender stems, chopped
10 ounces baby spinach
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
In a soup pot over medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons oil. Let heat for 30 seconds, then add leeks, red-pepper flakes, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Sauté leeks until golden brown at the edges, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 1 minute. Stir in fennel, zucchini, 1 teaspoon salt and remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
Set aside the asparagus tips and add the stems to the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables turn bright green, about 5 minutes.
Pour in 3 1/2 cups vegetable stock and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until the vegetables are very tender.
While the soup is simmering, heat a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil. Once hot, add asparagus tips and pinch of salt and cook until just tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside for garnish.
To the soup pot, add the herbs and 1 cup reserved fennel fronds (save remainder for garnish) to the broth. Working in batches, stir in the spinach until wilted. Add remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt.
Use an immersion blender to purée until smooth (or purée in batches using a regular blender or food processor). You may need to add the remaining 1/2 cup broth for a looser texture.
Stir in lemon juice and taste for salt and pepper, adding more if needed. Serve garnished with fennel fronds and asparagus tips.
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