Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Recipe: Asparagus Pesto with Pasta

Asparagus is my favorite spring vegetable.

Right around this time of year, grocery stores start to replace the thin, reedy asparagus flown in from parts unknown with big, healthy stalks of locally grown goodness. Last week, I snagged some amazing asparagus at the farmer's market - so tender it barely needed any time at all before it was cooked to perfection. It was the essence of spring distilled into a single bite.

Though I love asparagus dearly, my go-to cooking method (a few minutes on the grill with olive oil, salt, and pepper) can get a little repetitive. Looking for inspiration, I came across an article by Mark Bittman on asparagus pesto.

I'd never heard of asparagus pesto before, but it's essentially made just like a standard basil pesto: after lightly cooking the asparagus, just puree in a food processor with garlic, olive oil, Parmesan, and nuts. Initially I made the pesto as an accompaniment for lamb so I added mint, but almost any fresh herbs would work - the puree has a much milder asparagus flavor than you might expect, so you don't need to worry about clashing flavors.

One pound of asparagus makes quite a bit of pesto, so I had plenty of opportunities to experiment with creative ways to use it. Just like its basil-based counterpart, the asparagus pesto was delicious by itself on toasted bread. Surprisingly enough, it was very good with sauteed spinach - the resulting dish was strikingly similar to my beloved creamed spinach, but without any butter or cream. I folded some of the pesto into mashed potatoes, which imparted a nice amount of moisture without adding a strong asparagus flavor, and I eventually used the last of it in a frittata.

Naturally, it also makes a lovely and simple spring dish tossed with pasta.

Asparagus pesto with pasta

1 lb asparagus, washed and trimmed
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
Small handful of basil, tarragon, parsley, or any fresh herbs, roughly chopped
1/4 cup walnuts, toasted (you can also use pine nuts or pistachios)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Juice from 1/2 lemon, or to taste
1/2 lb. pasta (linguine would work well)

Chop asparagus into 2-inch segments and add to a pot of salted boiling water. Cook just until asparagus is tender, about 5-10 minutes (check by piercing a stalk with a knife). Drain and allow asparagus to cool slightly; set aside the asparagus tips.

In a food processor, pulse the asparagus segments, garlic, herbs, nuts, and Parmesan. Add olive oil in a slow, steady stream until pesto is the desired consistency - you may not need the entire 1/4 cup.

Add salt and pepper, and squeeze in lemon juice to taste. Mix asparagus tips back into pesto and refrigerate until ready to use (unused pesto will keep in the fridge for a day or two).

Prepare pasta according to package directions. Just before draining pasta, reserve 1/4 cup of cooking liquid.

Drain pasta, then return it to the pot over low heat. Pour in cooking liquid, then stir in 2 cups of asparagus pesto until pasta is coated and sauce reaches desired consistency.

Serve immediately.
Makes two servings.

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