Embrace the crisp flavor of raw asparagus
The first time I ate raw asparagus was during the 1980s, at an Italian restaurant in New York. Someone else must have pushed me to order it, because until then the only asparagus I’d ever encountered was steamed and buttered, and I really liked it just that way. Raw asparagus? Must be bland and boring. Then I noticed that the vegetable in question was the centerpiece of a salad dressed with fresh lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Well, shoot, a piece of cotton would taste good with that kind of treatment, so I took a chance. To my surprise and delight, the dish was wonderfully flavorful and refreshing. Crunchy, too. With asparagus season upon us, I thought it might be fun to recreate that salad with a few lip-smacking extras. First, a couple of tips about buying the star of this show. At the store, asparagus should be stored vertically, stem down in ice or water. They’re probably not in great shape if you find them stacked sideways and on top of each other, so keep looking. Make sure the tips are tight and smooth, not open and feathery, and that the stalks are firm and smooth.Size-wise, I’ve never met an asparagus I didn’t like, whether it’s thin as a pencil or thick as a hot dog. For this recipe, though, I recommend the thicker guys. Yes, you’ll have to peel the stalk (that outer layer on thick stalks is unappealingly tough), but they’re much easier to thinly slice than the pencil-necked guys. Then it’s on to the button mushrooms. Sure, they seem ordinary compared to their various designer cousins, but they’re absolutely delicious raw and they also happen to be quite affordable. Just be sure to purchase only the firmest, whitest, tightest specimens. No gills showing, please. A button mushroom becomes flabby as it ages. Your salad wants it firm. I’ve also tossed in some leaves of fresh flat-leaf parsley, and not merely as a garnish, but as a full partner to the other ingredients. In fact, almost any fresh herb — including parsley, basil, mint, cilantro, chives, chervil or dill — can play a similarly robust role in a salad. Lastly, we have pistachio nuts, my favorites. I love them for their flavor, but — at only 4 calories per nut — they’re also a boon to the diet-conscious. Of course, you could swap in walnuts, almonds, cashews or pecans if you wanted. They’re all sources of healthy fat. In the end, this spring salad — an exciting and satisfying alternative to the basic green salad — is all about simple, good ingredients. And, topped off with grilled shrimp or chicken, you could call it dinner.