White asparagus salad
Even though asparagus is widely available all year 'round in these modern times, it still speaks to me of springtime. And as we finally begin to emerge from an uncommonly long, gray and dreary winter in these parts, there's hardly a better way to celebrate the return of sunny and mild days than a feast of asparagus.
In the United States, most people think of asparagus in its natural green form. But Europeans swear by the white variety, and after a happy month of May spent eating my way across Germany and Austria a few years ago, I'm inclined to share their preference. Green asparagus is good, but the complex and delicate flavor of white asparagus - "spargel," in German - can be something special.
The happy confluence of a bunch of fresh white asparagus and the warmest day of the season so far inspired me to fashion a simple but delicious white-asparagus salad the other day. The process was simple: Simmer the asparagus with gentle aromatics; let it cool in a simple lemon vinaigrette to take up additional flavor. Then serve on a bed of simply dressed salad greens and enjoy!
Start this dish long enough before dinner to allow it time to cool. Here are the details.INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
1 bunch (about 12 ounces or 350 grams) white asparagus
1. Rinse and dry the asparagus, cut or break off the woody portion at the base (if any), and gently peel each spear from the tip back. I don't bother to peel green asparagus, but white asparagus seems to benefit from removing the relatively tough skin. It's worth the small extra effort. (This salad will certainly work with green asparagus, but as noted above, I go for white when I'm in the mood for something special.)
2. Put the asparagus in a shallow pan large enough to hold it flat, and add water to cover. Add plenty of salt, as if you were cooking pasta; peel and smash the garlic cloves and throw them in, and add the small portion of butter. Bring to the boil and simmer gently until tender but not mushy - 10 minutes or so should be enough, and it's the cook's privilege to taste a sample or two to check for doneness.
3. Drain the asparagus and rinse it with cold water to keep it from cooking further. Make a quick vinaigrette from the oil and lemon and pour about two-thirds of it over the asparagus, turning it to make sure it's all coated. Sprinkle with pepper and additional salt, if needed (here's an opportunity for another taste test), and set aside for an hour or two. (It's your option to keep it in the refrigerator, depending on whether you want to serve it at room temperature or cold. The latter is refreshing on a hot day, but in my experience, you get more flavor - just like a fine white wine - if you don't serve it over-chilled.)
4. At dinner time, arrange salad lettuce on serving plates (I like to use the "mesclun" mixes of field lettuces, but simple romaine or leaf lettuce or even iceberg will do). Dress with the remaining vinaigrette, and arrange the asparagus on top.
5. It's good to go as is, as an accompaniment to a light spring dinner. But you could get fancy, or turn it into a light main dish, with the addition of thin-sliced ham or prosciutto, thin shavings of fresh Parmigiano, cold cooked shrimp or what have you.
WINE MATCH: If it's served as a salad, then you'll want to consider the main course in your wine choice. For a direct match with white asparagus, however, consider an Austrian Grüner Veltliner or a crisp, racy Sauvignon Blanc, perhaps a Sancerre.
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