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Embracing the fresh, crisp flavor of raw asparagus

Published: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST
Caption
(Matthew Mead)
In this image taken on March 11, 2013, a raw asparagus, mushroom and parsley salad with nuts is shown served on a plate in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

The first time I ate raw asparagus was during the ‘80s 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.

Raw Asparagus,

Mushroom and Parsley Salad With Nuts and Parmesan

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Servings: 4

Kosher Salt and ground black pepper

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 pound asparagus, tough stems trimmed and discarded (peeled if thicker than 1/3 inch)

1 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves

4 ounces firm white button mushrooms, thinly sliced

1/3 cup pistachios or chopped toasted walnuts

1 ounce shaved Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese

In a large bowl, combine a hefty pinch of salt, some black pepper and the lemon juice. Whisk until the salt is dissolved, then add the oil in a stream, whisking. Set aside.

Lay the asparagus flat on a cutting board and slice a few stalks at a time very thin on a diagonal to create thin oblong slices. Add to the salad bowl along with the parsley, mushrooms and pistachios or walnuts. Toss well to coat with the dressing. Divide the salad among 4 serving plates and top each portion with some of the cheese.

Nutrition information per serving: 160 calories; 120 calories from fat (75 percent of total calories); 14 g fat (2.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 5 mg cholesterol; 6 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 7 g protein; 260 mg sodium.

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