Asparagus spears appearing in farmers markets and grocery stores are like little green flags signaling the start of spring. They're a nutrient-dense powerhouse packed with fiber, folic acid, B6, and vitamins A, C, E and K, as well as chromium. Phytonutrients abound, as well ascancer-fighting antioxidants.
What to Buy
Slender or thick? That's always the question with asparagus. People in Virginia swear by svelte stems no larger than a pencil, while others say that the thicker spears are often more tender, although they do need a quick peel. No matter the size, look for bright green, smooth stalks and tightly closed, purplish buds on top.
How to prepare
After washing, snap off the woody ends, and if the spears are thick, use a vegetable peeler to remove the tough skin. Asparagus demands ultra-quick cooking: Never leave it in a pan or boiling water for more than two to three minutes. A pat of butter to melt on top is all you need for the simplest of preparations.
Asparagus has been under cultivation for the past 3,000 years. Originally used as a medicinal herb in ancient Greece, by the time of the Roman Empire, it had gained a reputation as an aphrodisiac. Perhaps because of its, ahem, masculine profile, that notion still persists today.
Roasted Asparagus with Toasted Almonds, Bacon, Pecorino and Sherry Bacon Aïoli
Brandon McLeod , brunch and lunch chef at Can Can Brasserie, shared a recipe from the restaurant with us. "I like this as a side on its own, with eggs for brunch or with roasted fish as a lunch entrée," he says.
1 bunch of asparagus
1/3 cup of whole almonds
1/3 cup of thick-cut bacon, diced
2 to 3 ounces of Pecorino cheese (Parmesan or Manchego can be substituted)
2 egg yolks
3/4 cup of olive oil (keep more on hand for roasting the nuts and asparagus)
6 tablespoons of sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl, toss the almonds with salt, pepper and about a tablespoon of olive oil. Spread the almonds on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until the color deepens slightly, and they become quite fragrant, about 10 to 15 minutes. Shake the pan occasionally while roasting. When the almonds are cool, either slice them lengthwise or crush them between a cutting board and the bottom of a small pot.
Wash and trim the asparagus. Arrange on a baking sheet and drizzle with another tablespoon of olive oil. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Roast the asparagus in the oven for about 10 minutes, or until it begins to brown but is still firm.
While the asparagus is roasting, fry the diced bacon in a hot sauté pan until crisp. Drain on paper towels. Reserve the rendered fat in the pan.
For the sherry-bacon aïoli, place the yolks, sherry vinegar and Dijon mustard in a blender and purée. Season with salt and pepper to taste. On medium-high speed, incorporate the reserved bacon fat, and then slowly drizzle in the olive oil. You're done when the aïoli is thick and spoonable rather than spreadable. If it becomes too thick, add more sherry vinegar or a splash of water.
To assemble, arrange the asparagus on four plates and scatter the almonds and bacon over each serving. Spoon the aïoli on top. To finish, grate the Pecorino generously over each serving.