Chilled asparagus with fennel, spring onions and capers
When the first asparagus appears in early spring, I like to char it in a cast iron pan, and cut the stalks into small pieces for a quick sauté. After the thrill of the second or third batch prepared this way has diminished slightly, it dawns on me: blanching and chilling are my favorite techniques for preparing asparagus, and truly appreciating its grassy green flavor, texture and the snap of perfectly cooked spears.
The flavor of asparagus cannot be--should not be--overwhelmed by other ingredients, nor should asparagus be cooked until it is soft. Other tender and mildly flavored spring vegetables can be added as they come into season: sweet spring onions and young fennel, along with briny capers.
Non-pareil is a caper specification that I haven't had occasion to look up until now! Because they are sorted and sold by size, and the smaller caper berries are priced for their superior texture and floral quality, non-pareil, or “no equal” is the preferred variety for culinary applications.
To create a salad that becomes a meal, try topping the asparagus with smoked trout, another smoked fish or shellfish, or with sliced, cured meats like proscuitto or smoked cured ham.
makes 4 servings
1 pound fresh asparagus, lower stalked peeled with a vegetable peeler
1 spring onion, red or white, stem removed, halved and thinly sliced
1 bulb young or baby fennel, stalk removed, halved and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons non-pareil capers in brine, rinsed and well drained
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon champagne or white wine vinegar
Chervil or parsley leaves
Salt and fresh ground black pepper
Fill a bowl large enough to hold the asparagus with cold water and ice and set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium heat. When the water comes to a rolling boil, add the asparagus and blanch for 3 minutes. Drain and immediately plunge the asparagus into the ice water for a 3 minutes. Drain, pat dry with a towel and place the blanched asparagus in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Combine the onions, fennel, capers, oil and vinegar in a bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and add a bit of lemon juice or zest if some citrusy acidity is desired.
To serve, arrange the chilled asparagus on a large platter and spoon the vinaigrette over the top. Scatter the chervil or parsley leaves around and serve. This becomes a lovely appetizer if you add some sliced prosciutto or other ham, a bit of goat cheese, and a few leaves of spicy spring greens.