I rarely think about asparagus without remembering living in Germany and seeing the piles of white asparagus or spargel that the Germans prized so highly in the shops in Rinteln. A special spring treat grown under odd (to my eye) hills of dirt to keep it from greening up, this asparagus was thick, sturdy, slower to cook than ours, and sometimes very happily heavily sauced. Our Russian housecleaner, an asparagus afficionado herself, enjoyed horrifying me with stories of her country’s custom of letting farm stock eat asparagus — green asparagus, that is — that grew wild in the field. Not fit for human consumption, it was just animal food to her. Great for cattle or pigs. Eeeeecchhh. (Read here for a recipe for spargel.) Knowing how many years we Americans spend developing our asparagus gardens, this made for teeth-clenching mental pictures.
Here and now in the U.S., we often can find asparagus all year round if we eat Fed Ex vegetables, but it is most precious and thrilling in the spring when it is the quintessential harbinger of all the tasty freshness still to come. I adore cooking the thicker asparagus — I think it’s a bit more flavorful and even more tender as long as you peel the bottom third — but the tall, slim stalks are many shopper’s favorites and that’s what was in the story yesterday.
To avoid a long grocery shopping expedition and to make sure I got in the under-15 items line, I had gone in without a basket or buggy. Just my big trusty arms to hold what I needed, which quickly became nearly more than I could handle. I needed greens, asparagus, bananas, bread, and salmon. It was all I could do to not drop the bread particularly, but I persevered and made it up to the short line where no one waited; I was relieved to unceremoniously dump everything right onto the conveyor belt! I paid and was out the door, speeding home before I hit the schools that would soon fill the streets with lined up cars and buses. I didn’t know exactly how I’d cook all of this stuff, but I knew it would be simple and swift.
Cranking up the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, I laid out the salmon fillet on a baking sheet lined with a double measure of foil and seasoned it with olive oil, salt, pepper, and a layer of lemon slices. I In it went for just about 15 minutes all tightly wrapped up like Christmas. There would be plenty for dinner and plenty for tomorrow as well.
While the salmon cooked, I decided the asparagus would go into the salad, rather than lay along side it. And maybe some crusty, garlicky croutons could provide a crunchy contrast… Soon I was browning pieces of salted and peppered bread, chopping asparagus, and cleaning greens for a salad I know I’ll make again and again. While luscious next to our roasted salmon, this salad could also be an entire light meal or a simple and light foil to your Easter lamb or ham.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown –
Who ponders this tremendous scene –
This whole Experiment of Green –
As if it were his own!
ASPARAGUS-PARMESAN SALAD WITH GARLIC CROUTONS
serves 4 as a first course or 2 as a main course
- 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- Kosher salt/fresh-ground pepper/crushed red pepper
- 2-3 slices whole grain-seeded artisan bread, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 pound asparagus, trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 3 cups mixed greens
- 12 cherry tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons chopped kalamata olives, optional
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or more to taste.
- 12 large shards Parmesan (use vegetable peeler)
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium flame with a pinch each salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper; add pieces of bread and brown on both sides. Stir in garlic and let cook 1-2 minutes. It’s ok if it takes on some color or becomes a bit crispy. Remove bread and garlic to a salad bowl. (continued below)
Add asparagus and 3-4 tablespoons of water to the same skillet. Season the asparagus with a sprinkle each of salt and pepper. Let cook 2-3 minutes, stirring, or until just barely tender. Drain well and add asparagus to bowl with the croutons. Stir in greens, tomatoes, and olives, if using. Drizzle with red wine vinegar and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Toss and let sit a minute or so. Drizzle with the other two tablespoons of olive oil; toss. Taste and adjust seasonings, oil and vinegar as necessary. Garnish with the Parmesan shards. Happily munch.
COOK’S NOTE: If making this a day ahead for the holiday or taking to a potluck: Make the croutons and garlic first; cool and store in a small container. Next, cook asparagus; drain, cool, store in another container. Shred the parmesan and store in a plastic bag. Take the remaining ingredients with you to prepare and toss in a large bowl just before eating. Doubles easily. (If you have guests who are vegan or gluten-free, it is easy to leave out either the cheese or the bread; the salad will then be fine for everyone.)
Sing a new song,