As far as vegetables go, asparagus is really something: tall, peaked in pretty tips, stalks cast in deep shades of green, with knobby dark-purple bumps along the sides shaped in tiny triangles. It has no fat or cholesterol, few calories, little sodium, as well as lots of potassium, folic acid, vitamins A & C and fiber. Plus, this time of year it’s just finishing up its two-month-long season, meaning it’s still pretty easy to find at your supermarket.
Of course, just because it’s available doesn’t mean it’s fresh—a lesson I learned all too well on Saturday when I pulled out the bunch I’d grabbed the night before and, gasping, extended my arm as far away as possible from my face, hoping to minimize the oh-my-gosh-what-is-it-that-smells-like-death odor assaulting me. A return trip to the store—complete with thorough examining of every remaining bunch of asparagus, conversations with the produce man and the manager, obtainment of two brand-new bunches hidden away in the back cooler— left me confident of three things: 1) Fresh asparagus should not, ever, ever, smell like dirty socks left in a hamper, 2) Nor should it, for any reason, have yellow slime building up between stalks and 3) There’s a reason I spend so much time at Dominick’s: those people are nice.
When you’re choosing asparagus at the store, don’t assume bunches are fresh just because they all look alike. Search for firm, bright green stalks with tightly closed tips, where the ends look freshly cut, not dried out. And, fun fact: the thickness of the stalks reveals how late in the season the vegetables have been harvested. Thicker stalks = beginning of season. Thinner stalks = later.
Now, if you love asparagus like I do, you’ll already know how good it is roasted in a white-hot oven, smothered in olive oil, when the skin blisters and absorbs all the oil’s fruity flavor. It’s also fantastic grilled over open flames or, boiled and chopped up into Saturday morning omelettes.
But can I make one more suggestion? If you have in your hands a fresh bunch of asparagus, you absolutely have to make this salad. Trust me on this.
Originally from Food + Wine, this recipe was recently featured at The Kitchen Sink Recipes, where Kristin swore, as someone who doesn’t usually love dates, that they made the salad worth trying. I almost didn’t believe her, but when she said bacon-wrapped dates were her only previous experience with them, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit, and I took her word for it. Good thing—by our second helpings, Jackie and I were searching for those same dates to scoop onto our plates the way I look for Oreo chunks in Blizzards at Dairy Queen. They add a chewy sweetness to the combination of tender asparagus, toasted walnuts and shaved Pecorino. And when the whole lot gets tossed with a homemade vinaigrette, I swear, you won’t believe how addictive it is.
Asparagus Salad with Walnuts, Dates & Pecorino
Adapted from Kristin of The Kitchen Sink Recipes, via Food + Wine
My biggest deviation from the original recipe was in the amount of asparagus (see asterisk below), so by all means follow the two-pound directions, knowing there’s room for flexibility without sacrificing flavor. Also, I used grapeseed oil instead of walnut oil and chopped the asparagus differently, which created a sort of slaw effect. You know how I love to experiment, and, in this case, it was good.
1 1/4 cups walnuts
1 small shallot, minced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 pounds asparagus*, thinly sliced lengthwise and blanched for 2 minutes in salted, boiling water
3/4 cup dried pitted California dates, quartered lengthwise
3 ounces dry pecorino cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler or grated finely
Preheat the oven to 350°. Spread the walnuts on a cookie sheet and toast for about 8 minutes, until lightly golden and fragrant. Let cool completely.
In a small bowl, make the dressing: combine the shallot with the lemon juice. Whisk in both oils and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a large bowl, toss the toasted walnuts, asparagus, dates and pecorino. Add the dressing and toss. Serve immediately.
*I have no idea how much asparagus I used, mostly because I exchanged my intial bad bunch for two fresh ones, and I didn’t think about measuring until I got home. Judging by how well the dressing covered things, I probably underestimated on the right amount, but, between us, it was still delicious.