Thursday, May 5, 2011

Roasted Asparagus with Pistachio Citrus Dressing

Photo by Sergio Salvador  www.salvadorphoto.com
Asparagus is the quintessential spring delicacy – because of the way it grows, we can only enjoy it for a few months. A long-lived perennial, my grandmother's asparagus grew in the same patch for over 30 years. Each spring she would cut the new shoots before they were about eight inches tall, until early June, when she would stop harvesting and let them grow into bushy fernlike plants to feed the roots for another year. By the end of summer, they're about four feet tall, and the female plants develop small red berries, which are poisonous. 

Asparagus is easy to grow, but it takes patience – you won't be able to harvest for the first two years, in order to allow strong root development. White asparagus is produced by covering the plants so that they grow with no light, resulting in less bitterness.

At the market, choose crisp, bright green asparagus with tightly closed heads. Fatter stalks come from older plants, but that doesn't mean they'll be any more or less sweet. Freshness is what matters most – once the stalks are cut, the sugars begin to change to starches. Many people don't like asparagus because they've only had it overcooked. The key to perfect asparagus is cooking it only until it is bright green and tender, but still a bit crisp. Roasting or grilling it brings out a little extra sweetness, but steaming is faster. Asparagus and citrus are a classic combination, but the addition of pistachios is genius – this recipe is adapted from Anya Von Bremzen's The New Spanish Table.

1 pound asparagus
2 T. olive oil
1/4 t. coarse salt
Zest and juice of 1 orange (or 1 Meyer lemon, or 2 tangerines)
¼ cup shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped
1/4 t. freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400°F. Snap off the tough ends of the asparagus (just bend them gently and they will naturally snap at the right place!) Toss with olive oil and salt in a baking pan. Roast 20 to 25 minutes, until asparagus is tender but still a bit crisp. Toss all remaining ingredients with asparagus and enjoy hot or cold. Serves 4 as an appetizer or side.
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