You'll have to forgive me. I'm not normally so bossy, but this, this is serious. By my calculation, we are most of us, right this minute, smack dab in the (circle that which applies: a. beginning b. middle c. end) of asparagus season. Somehow, I've gone all my long life without ever slipping asparagus into salad. Roasting pans, risottos, stir-fries, rice, pasta, hollandaise, yes. But not salads. People. I don't want you to suffer the same.
(Injury? Go, mend. Even asparagus doesn't trump Spring's scrapes. A wise man recently announced we'd best re-arrange our medicine cabinet, flu box to the back, first aid to the front. Colds are out; boo-boo's, in. Must be May.)
A pound will do. Though you might pick up three. Or, if you're me, clear the farmstand's decks. I prefer thick, thick as it comes, ideally thicker than my thumb. And I'm Scandinavian. I have thick thumbs.
Although thin's good, too. So long as it's true.
(Eh? Spirit's moving you to practice little letters? Very well. a-s-p-a-r-a-g-u-s.)
By true, I mean the backyard kind. Not your backyard; I can't manage so-called-easy zucchini, much less something with adventitious root systems and fasciculated root types. Just big-picture backyard, from your 100-miles, your state, your wherever's-nearest-that-grows-asparagus place. Look for local, here. Please? Asparagus is May's tomato, bred to look the part and stocked year-round, tasting exuberantly of itself for only an instant. Plump, sugared, juicy, taut, a crisp sweet soliloquoy to spring.
Do not pass go.
(Oh, right. Teddy-bear hard-boiled eggs wait for no girl, and certainly no iconic veg. Bring "help" to the Japanese grocery, and the cart will yield surprises, guaranteed.
Admire. Grin. Eat. Back to business.)
While you're at it, gather up some crunch. I like sprouts, of any sort, and radishes, and anise-breathed fennel. Watercress would work, or celery, or even those tiny new ping-pong turnips. Anything snappy and sweet, when raw and sliced thin-as-thin.
Excellent! Almost there.
(Distracted by peonies? I know. Me, too. They're as fly-by-night as spring asparagus.
Take your time. Definitely inhale.)
Also, some herbs, parsley and chives, which even my zucchini-challenged self can (mostly) grow. Fistfuls of both. Several fistfuls, if you're five.
(What's that? Need to engineer cracker-bearing structures out of toothpicks, paper plates, and marshmallows? Because it's pushing 90° and humid as Hades? I'm so with you. Just don't forget... Asparagus. Asparagus. Asparagus.)
You'll need a bit of buttermilk, preferably the thick stuff, cultured, full-fat, wobbly. Nuts are nice, slivered almonds, or better, salted sunflower seeds. Or both. And pantry staples like olive oil, vinegar, salt, a nub of garlic.
(Oh, the roses. Did they beckon you, too? Because they're the small scraggly potent old-fashioneds? Absolutely sniff away. They won't get you one inch closer to salad, and they certainly won't help you spot a whale. But I'd never get between a rose and a nose. Or, for that matter, you, Stead and Fogliano. Go, read their latest, loveliest. I totally did. Then fire your oven to 450°)
Lastly, some lentils. Du puy, specifically. Here I go, getting all insistent, again. Bear with me. Even I can't avoid tilting my chin and pinching my nose and sniffling a little, before muttering du Pweeee. It sounds so twee. It even rhymes. But they hold their shape brilliantly in the cooking, and go all tender and winsome in the pot, and add tiny plinks of buttery charm to salads in a way I apparently adore.
(Care package from Annette? DROP. EVERYTHING. Because it might yield up, oh, I don't know. Shark bite band-aids? Zombie brain jello molds? Tootsie Roll Pops the size of ogre heads? Cheer. Devour. Let sugar rush subside. Carry on. Asparagus, asparagus...)
Right-o! We're set! Cook those lentils (a boiling salted pot, twenty minutes, drain, done). Roast that asparagus (blazing oven, olive oil + salt, ten minutes, tops). Blitz that dressing (mini-processor, stick blender, stand blender, whatever whizzing thing you've got). Slice those radishes and fennel, thin-thin. Layer, drizzle, sigh... Wait up.
(Mud-time, is it? Hold the fork! There are mere days when the wallowing's grand and the mosquitoes, not yet moved in. Go carpe those diem. Just, you know, be quick about it.)
Sorry. I love a patch of good mud almost as much as this salad. Almost.
This salad is the working out of several asparagus salads I ate and enjoyed, these past weeks. I adored the dialogue between lentils and asparagus in Ashley's play on Ottolenghi's. Also, Heidi's pairing of spears and sprouts, and the sweet mantle tang of buttermilk. I built on what I loved best about both, and tweaked and embellished and eventually, landed happily in this bowl.
Inside is a pile-up of every good thing I appreciate about Spring. Cool shavings of fennel, sweet-kicky fresh radish, plus tangles of sprouts, for loft and snap. Buttery lentils are littered throughout like so many edible polka dots. Sunflower seeds, also small, salty, brown, are the little lentils' doppelgängers, identical save for their excellent crunch.
The dressing—which I like to drizzle on as I go, this belonging more to the layered than tossed school of saladry—is its own glory, versatile, wonderful. It's a bit like Green Goddess, but better, with twice the herbs and a clean, clear sweet that fuggy mayonnaise can never quite manage. Gently herbal, faintly garlicked, creamy and sweet with a rim of tang, it tastes like Spring bound up in a bottle.
And everywhere, that asparagus. Why I never thought to slice spears before roasting, I can't even begin to explain. Any more than I can explain overlooking this whole category of asparagus cookery. Cut first, they cook faster, and caramelize better, each extra edge, an added opportunity. Every bevel can catch, and go sticky and golden, while the insides steam-roast to just-right, sweet as candy, juicy as corn, addictive as all get-out. Good luck not plucking them, straight off the sheet.
Just don't, whatever you do, eat them all. Save some for this. For those golden-green nubbins, roasty, intense, are the thing that make the whole sing. They are the pop, the rich sticky contrast, gravitas to all that hop-skippy Spring crunch. If I knew half a thing about music I'd throw out analogies about harmony and melody and Simon and Garfunkel and the way the Avett Brothers rock Brooklyn and banjos like no other. Because that is the asparagus, here, soulful, essential, fantastically good. But you'll figure that out for yourself, if not right this minute, then soon enough.
A High Spring Salad of Asparagus, Lentils + Crunch,
with Herbed Buttermilk Drizzle
inspired by 101Cookbooks and Not Without Salt
yield: 2 immense dinner-sized servings, or 4 nice sides, or 1 week's solo lunches
Realistically? I cook the lentils and asparagus, and make the dressing, at the week's outset, and am then five minutes—and a few shaved vegetables—away from lunch, for days. If you part it out this way, shave only as many radishes and as much fennel as you need for that day. If you make this in one go, let the asparagus and lentils cool slightly, so as not to wilt the raw veg. Mandolines terrify me, but I adore my Benriner. Hand-cutting the fennel and radishes would work just fine. You could, of course, make one big salad for dinner. But then you would have to share.
As to amounts and details, do play. I can see carrot ribbons here, or avocados, or arugula, or watercress. A soft-boiled egg. Feta, pecorino, ricotta salata. I'll add slivered snap peas, when they're ready. Ditto the dressing. Use whatever is fresh and green in your garden, all parsley, more chives, a bit of tarragon and/or dill. This makes a loose dressing, which I like, for it doesn't weigh down the sprouts and slivers. Add extra herbs if you want more body. You will likely have dressing leftover. Lovely on steamed potatoes, or as a dip for crudités, or to dunk whole roasted spears into, or or or...
for the salad:
1 cup green lentils (du Puy lentils)
1 pound asparagus
1 box (2 packed cups) sprouts (I used spicy)
1 generous bunch radishes (10-12 plump)
1 rotund fennel bulb
1 cup salted sunflower seeds, flaked almonds, or a mix
extra-virgin olive oil + salt, for seasoning
for buttermilk herb dressing:
1/2 cup buttermilk, whole milk, well-shaken
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 cup fresh parsley, leaves and tender stems, loosely packed
1/2 cup chives
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
squeeze of honey (1-2 teaspoons)
Cook lentils: Bring a medium pot of well-salted water to the boil. Tip in the lentils, turn heat down, and simmer, 20-22 minutes, or until just tender to the core, but not beginning to disintegrate. Taste a few to test. Drain. Set aside to cool slightly. Use immediately, or refrigerate, up to 5 days.
Roast asparagus: Preheat oven to 450°, and place rack a few inches from the bottom. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Snap woody bottoms away, slice spears into roughly 2" chunks, shorter for the thick ends, longer for the tips, and scatter on lined baking sheet. Drizzle 1-2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon kosher salt over all, toss lightly with fingers to coat, and place in preheated oven. Roast 5-10 minutes (5 for slim spears, 10 for extra plump), shaking tray halfway through, until edges are catching and going chestnut in spots, and insides are tender, plump and sweet. Set aside to cool slightly. Use immediately, or refrigerate, up to 3 days.
Make dressing: Combine everything in a food processor or blender, and blitz until completely smooth, 1-2 minutes. Taste for seasoning and strength, adjust to suit, and blitz again, if needed. Set aside, or refrigerate, up to 5 days. Give a stir before using, if pulling from the fridge.
Prepare salad: Shave your radishes and fennel, either on a benriner, or very thinly, with a sharp knife. Gather your lentils, asparagus, sprouts, dressing and seeds. On a large platter, or in a greedy-hungry mine-all-mine bowl, build layers of goodness, drizzling on dressing as you go: fennel, radishes, asparagus, lentils, sprouts, seeds, dressing; repeat; repeat; until you've enough; finish with a final drizzle of herbed buttermilk. This keeps the dressing from weighing the sprouts down, and eliminates the need for a final toss. Dig in. And raise a glass to Spring.