Spring is a glorious time for seasonal cooks, especially us plant-based ones, because, well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Out with the turnips, in with the asparagus! And more.
Early in asparagus season, I find it hard to resist simply steaming, blanching or even broiling them, and eating them with a simple sauce. But soon enough, I’ll be looking for other ideas, which is where this pasta recipe comes in. It’s from Alice Hart’s new book, “Good Veg” (The Experiment, 2017), and it’s a keeper.
Hart has you blanch asparagus stalks for a pesto — but not before saving the more delicate tips and quickly sauteing them. The pesto combines with whole-wheat pasta; you fold in some white beans for extra texture and protein, and serve the dish with those asparagus tips on top.
It’s another fine way to welcome asparagus back to the table, all spring long.
PENNE WITH ASPARAGUS PESTO AND WHITE BEANS
Vegetarian Parmesan (dairy cheese that does not use animal rennet) is made by such companies as Sargento and Bel Gioso and can be found in Whole Foods Markets and other stores.
Adapted from “Good Veg: Ebullient Vegetables, Global Flavors, a Modern Vegetarian Cookbook,” by Alice Hart (The Experiment, 2017).
- 12 ounces (1 large bunch) asparagus
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
- 12 ounces dried whole-wheat penne, or another short pasta shape
- 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 small bunches basil (1 loosely packed cup)
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- ¼ cup raw almonds
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest, or more as needed, plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or more as needed
- ½ cup vegetarian Parmesan cheese, finely grated, plus more for serving (see headnote)
- One 15-ounce can no-salt-added cannellini beans, drained and rinsed (about 1½ cups)
Trim and discard the tough/woody ends of each asparagus spear. Cut the tips with about a thumb’s length of stalk and reserve them; cut the remaining stalks into 2-inch lengths.
Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil over high heat, add the teaspoon of salt and the 2-inch pieces of stalks; cook until tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a food processor. Once the water in the saucepan returns to a boil, stir in the pasta and cook according to the package directions, or until al dente. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water.
Return the (now-empty) saucepan to high heat. Add the asparagus tips and 1 teaspoon of the oil. Cook, stirring constantly, until they are lightly browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn off the heat (you’ll use the pan one more time) and transfer the tips to a plate.
Stack, roll tightly and cut a few large basil leaves into ribbons; reserve for garnish.
Combine the garlic, almonds and the remaining basil in the food processor (with the asparagus pieces). Add the tablespoon of lemon juice and the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil; pulse to form a coarse puree, stopping to scrape down the sides a few times. Add the lemon zest and vegetarian Parm; pulse a few times to incorporate and form the pesto. Taste and add more lemon juice and/or salt, as needed.
Return the saucepan to medium-low heat. Add the drained pasta, along with the beans and the asparagus pesto. Toss gently to incorporate, adding just enough of the reserved pasta cooking water, a few tablespoons at a time, to create a creamy sauce.
Once the pasta has warmed through, divide it among warmed bowls or plates. Top each portion with some sauteed asparagus tips, basil ribbons and more cheese. Serve right away.
Nutrition per serving: 410 calories, 15 g protein, 55 g carbohydrates, 14 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 450 mg sodium, 9 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar.