The first time I ate raw asparagus was during the ’80s at an Italian restaurant in New York. Someone else must have pushed me to order it because until then the only asparagus I’d ever encountered was steamed and buttered. I really liked it that way. Raw asparagus? Must be bland and boring.
Then I noticed that the vegetable in question was the centerpiece of a salad dressed with fresh lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Well, a piece of cotton would taste good with that kind of treatment, so I took a chance. To my surprise and delight, the dish was wonderfully flavorful and refreshing. Crunchy, too.
With asparagus season upon us, I thought it might be fun to create that salad with a few lip-smacking extras.
First, a couple of tips about buying the star of this show. At the store, asparagus should be stored vertically, stem down in ice or water. They’re probably not in great shape if you find them stacked sideways and on top of each other, so keep looking. Make sure the tips are tight and smooth, not open and feathery, and that stalks are firm.
Size-wise, I’ve never met an asparagus I didn’t like, whether it’s thin as a pencil or thick as a hot dog. For this recipe, though, I recommend the thicker guys. Yes, you’ll have to peel the stalk (that outer layer on thick stalks is unappealingly tough), but they’re much easier to thinly slice than the pencil-necked guys.
Then it’s on to the button mushrooms. Sure, they seem ordinary compared with their various designer cousins, but they’re delicious raw and they also happen to be quite affordable.
Just be sure to purchase only the firmest, whitest, tightest specimens. No gills showing, please. A button mushroom becomes flabby as it ages. Your salad wants it firm.
I also have tossed in leaves of fresh flat-leaf parsley, and not merely as a garnish, but as a full partner to the other ingredients. In fact, almost any fresh herb – including parsley, basil, mint, cilantro, chives, chervil or dill – can play a similarly robust role in a salad.
Lastly, we have pistachios, my favorite nut. I love them for their flavor, but – at only 4 calories per nut – they also are a boon to the diet-conscious. Of course, you could swap in walnuts, almonds, cashews or pecans if you wanted. They’re all sources of healthful fat.
In the end, this spring salad – an exciting and satisfying alternative to the basic green salad – is all about simple, good ingredients. And, topped off with grilled shrimp or chicken, you could call it dinner.
ALMOND-CRUSTED BAKE-FRIED ASPARAGUS 6 egg whites
11/2 cups almond flour
11/2 teaspoons garlic powder
11/2 teaspoons smoked paprika
11/2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 bunches asparagus, tough bottoms trimmed
Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Set a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Coat the rack with cooking spray.
In a large bowl, whisk egg whites until frothy. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, mix together the almond flour, garlic powder, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper.
Place the asparagus in the egg whites and gently roll or toss until all of the spears are coated and moistened. A few spears at a time, transfer the asparagus to the almond flour mixture. Roll the spears in the mixture until evenly and well coated. If needed, pat the coating on with your hands. Arrange the coated spears on the prepared rack then spritz them with cooking spray.
Roast for 20 minutes, or until crispy and browned. Serve.
Per serving: 190 calories; 110 calories from fat (58 percent of total calories); 12 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 12 g carbohydrate; 7 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 12 g protein; 700 mg sodium.Start to finish: 35 minutes (15 minutes active) Servings: 6