Monday, April 17, 2017

Asparagus pesto is more common than I thought

My wife and I both like pesto. The other day we had a chance to sample a vegetable lasagna with a basil-based pesto replacing the common tomato sauce. It was good. We were surprised at how much we enjoyed it.

When I told our youngest daughter about the lasagna, she said said she was familiar with pestos and note the plural. There are a lot of pesto recipes and some are completely new to me -- but not to our daughter. She told us she made a green pea-based pesto and it was excellent.

This started me thinking. Why not an asparagus-based pesto? After all, it is spring. It would be the perfect creation to celebrate spring's arrival. A search of the New York Times Cooking site found a recipe. A simple Google search found lots more. One of my favourite takes is a Williams Sonoma recipe Rigatoni with Asparagus Pesto and Ricotta Salata.

I took a crack at the NYT's recipe but found it wanting. The next night I took another try. This time, I made the pesto first. I'm not much of an ingredients-juggler when it comes to making dinner. I'm still in the KISS stage: Keep It Simple Stupid.

Let's go over my ingredient list:

  • 1 bunch of asparagus (230 g used for the pesto with six spears held aside to be served whole.)
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced (I actually used more but I'm going to cut back to one clove.)
  • 20 g of pine nuts
  • 25 g of walnuts plus a few to adorn the finished dish when served
  • 1/2 cup loosely packed grated Parmesan cheese plus some to sprinkle on finished dish
  • 1 Tbsp of olive oil
  • Juice from half a lemon (Squeezed the remaining half over the dinners at the table.)
  • 1 good pinch of salt
  • 150 g of pennine (I cook 75 g of pasta per person. Sometimes I cook even less.)
  • 50 g of chopped baby spinach
  • A handful of small cherry tomatoes and four large cherry tomatoes 
  • 4 ounces of cooked ham or cooked chicken

I grilled and caramelized the asparagus for the pesto but my wife has convinced me the result wasn't worth the effort and time. The next time, I'll just steam the asparagus. I'm sticking with my amount: 230 g.

With the asparagus steaming, toast 20 g of pine nuts in a skillet over medium high heat. When these begin turning golden brown, remove from the heat and set aside. Next, toast the 25 g of walnuts. When done, set aside with the pine nuts, keeping a few walnuts separate as a garmish for the dish when served.
Next, fry the minced garlic in a little olive oil for possibly 30 seconds over medium high heat. The garlic should not turn dark brown. It should be a golden colour. Place this aside with the toasted nuts, as well.

Grate half a cup of Parmesan cheese. Don't tamp it down. Leave loose in measuring cup. Lastly, squeeze the juice from half a lemon and set aside. Now, take the steamed asparagus and dice well. This is especially important if using a food blender. If the pieces are too large, they hang up, jam and require a lot of finagling to be coaxed into making contact with the spinning blades.

Drop the well diced asparagus into the blender, add the toasted pine nuts, toasted walnuts, golden minced garlic, a Tbsp of olive oil, half a cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and the fresh squeezed lemon juice. There should be about two Tbsps of juice. Give the mixture a couple of good shakes of salt and blend all into a light green pesto. Remove pesto from blender bowl and set aside. It won't sit long.

Chop the cooked ham or cooked chicken into large chunks and toss into a frying pan with a little olive oil. While the meat is heating, drop the pennine into a pot of fast boiling water. Give the pot a stir to keep the pasta from sticking. It will be done in about eight minutes.

While the pasta is cooking, add the tomatoes to the skillet with the ham or chicken. If all goes well, the tomatoes will be just beginning to split from the heat as the pasta closes in on al dente. Drop the chopped baby spinach into the pot with the pasta, swirl the pasta and spinach around and drain. I find smaller bits of spinach clump less than large pieces. The goal is to have the spinach spread out through the pasta.

Place the remaining asparagus spears in the microwave and cook for a minute or less. The spears will cook quickly. Take care not to overcook.While the spears are cooking, add the asparagus pesto to the cooked pasta mixed with spinach. Toss in the chunks of heated ham or chicken and the cherry tomatoes and mix well. Serve.

Decorate each serving of pasta with a few roasted walnuts and sprinkle on a some Parmesan cheese, too. Place the larger, cherry tomatoes and the whole steamed or microwaved asparagus spears on the side. It should look good and taste even better. I'm working on improving my presentation but the flavour demands no serious tweaking.

There was a lot of pesto. I can see stretching this to coat four servings of pennine. (This assumes you are content serving only 70 g of pesto per person.) With more pasta, the pennine might be easier to see. The pennine seems hidden with this presentation.

We eat a lot of asparagus in the spring. There is an asparagus farm just minutes from our London, Ontario, home. I'm confident I'll get this looking beautiful at some point in the near future.

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