[…]but what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet – still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed – with an iridescence that was not of this world.– Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (1913), Vol I: Swann’s Way, p.168.
This particular dish was actually supposed to be a caramelized fennel and mascarpone dish, until I happened upon some amazing looking green asparagus at the market. Similar to what the narrator in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (Original title in French: À la Recherche du Temps Perdu) describes in the citation above, asparagus seem to have this enchanting effect on me. As a personal rule, as soon as those lovely green pencil-stalks start popping up their little heads at the farmer’s market, they have to be bought immediately and cherished like a precious treasure. Since spring is the best season for this tasty and nutritious vegetable, and there are only a couple of weeks left to enjoy it at its best, I decided the caramelized fennel could wait for now…
I don’t think I am overreacting (neither is Proust’s narrator) when I say asparagus really are a vegetable-y treasure: not only are they healthy and delicious, but they really don’t need a lot of company of other ingredients (this dish uses under 10 in total!), neither do they need a lot of attention. Indeed, asparagus hardly need any cooking, as there is nothing worse than an overcooked floppy asparagus. I prefer to stir-fry asparagus no longer than 5 – 7 minutes until they are just crisp-tender; their stalks should be slightly softened, but with a slight snap and crunch left in them. Depending on their thickness and your personal preference, perhaps they could use a bit more time in the pan, but definitely never over 10 minutes! Honestly, I could just eat them like that with some melted butter, but I suppose one cannot live of vegetables and melted butter alone (or can one?).
Opinions might be split on that one, but let me tell you that this lemony pasta dish with crisp green asparagus is the perfect combination between convenience, simplicity, and deliciousness. This meal is perfect for those early spring days when the days are starting to get warmer (it is 23°C outside as I am writing this post in early May) and you are craving seasonal foods that are bright and fresh. In this recipe, slightly crunchy stir-fried asparagus are joined by silky Mascarpone, the freshness of lots lemon juice and zest (it’s very lemony!) and a nice toasty crunch from oven-toasted hazelnuts. While this dish does have a comforting creaminess to it (though, without butter *gasp*), it actually tastes clean, crisp and refreshing – everything you’d desire and need from an asparagus dish on a warm Spring day.
Tip: Want to know if the asparagus you are buying are fresh and of good quality? Look for bright green (and/or purple/white) spears that are firm to the touch. Fresh asparagus are ‘squeaky’: when you squeeze the bunch, or rub the stalks together, you should be able to hear a squeaky sound.
Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time. Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, Modern Library, 1992.
The ‘asparagus sketch‘ used in this post is hand-drawn by me.
Pasta with Green Asparagus, Mascarpone, Lemon and Toasted Hazelnuts
- 90g hazelnuts
- 500g fresh green asparagus
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 400g short pasta (such as penne, farfalle, casarecce, etc.)
- 120g Mascarpone
- 1-2 lemons, juiced and zested (you will need about 90ml juice)
- Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
- Salt to taste
- Preheat your oven to 180°C.
- Prepare the toasted hazelnut topping: Spread the hazelnuts out on a baking sheet and place in the middle of the preheated oven. Toast the nuts for 8 to 10 minutes, until their skins start to flake and blister slightly, but keep an eye on them so they don’t burn. Place a clean tea towel on your counter. Take the nuts out of the oven and transfer them onto the clean tea towel and fold the towel over them. Keep the warm nuts covered for about 2 minutes, the steam and heat will help loosen the skins a little (though, usually they should already be mostly loosened). Vigorously rub the nuts inside the towel until most of their skins have come off. Transfer the husked nuts onto a chopping board and coarsely chop them up to create a coarse crumb. Set aside.
- Prepare the asparagus: Cut about 2 to 3 cm of off the woody bottoms of the asparagus and cut the stalks into pieces of about 5 cm. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the crushed garlic cloves and pieces of asparagus to the pan. Sauté the asparagus pieces 5 to 7 minutes (depending on their thickness), until crisp-tender. If you like your asparagus more well-done sauté for an extra couple of minutes. Remove from heat.
- Meanwhile boil the pasta: Add your pasta of choice to a large pot of boiling salted water and cook until al dente according to the instructions on the packet. Drain the pasta, but reserve 150ml of the cooking liquid. Return pasta to the large pot.
- Finishing the dish: Place the pot with pasta over (very) low heat andstir in the Mascarpone. When the Mascarpone has melted, remove pan from heat and stir in the lemon juice and half of the lemon zest. You want your pasta to be coated with a glossy, slightly thin cream sauce. If the pasta seems dry, add (some off) the reserved cooking liquid from the pasta in order to loosen it up. Mix in the stir-fried asparagus and add some freshly cracked black pepper and salt to taste.
- Plate: Divide the pasta over plates, or bowls and sprinkle on some of the chopped toasted hazelnuts and the reserved lemon zest. Serve immediately.