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Asparagus and Basil Pesto

Growing up, asparagus was not exactly that high on my Favorite Green Vegetables list .  It usually came from a can, was stringy and had a slightly metallic taste.  It wasn't until well after college that I started discovering treats such as grilled asparagus wrapped with prosciutto....when the cured ham makes a crispy shell around the outside and lets its meaty flavors ooze all through the stalk.  Since then, I've become a huge fan of both grilled asparagus and roasted asparagus, and am always on the hunt for new ways to prepare it.  Such as making it into a pesto....






The Rise of Pesto

Cooked Asparagus in a Food ProcessorPesto is one of those dishes that has gained cult status with a group of devoted followers who feel that nearly any vegetable is a candidate for pesto-ization.  This is really no different from those who believe that nearly any meat (or candy bar) can be battered and fried or those that proclaim that any fruit should be mixed with greek yogurt and blended into a smoothie.

I can sort of get on board with that thinking, provided that the core ingredients of a true pesto are still present.  

Just like a true burger contains beef or a true tapenade contains anchovies...a true pesto genovese contains basil, garlic, pine nuts and extra virgin olive oil.  This is no essentially how I make my Sun Dried Tomato Pesto, which really just adds the sun-dried tomato to a core pesto recipe.

Toasting Pine Nuts in a Skillet
Toasting Pine Nuts in a Skillet

When to find great asparagus


Aspraragus, Basil, Pine Nuts and Paremesan in a food processorWhile Aspraragus is generally available year round (thanks to south of the equator farming, refrigerated containers and ethelyne absorbers), it's really just the months from March to May when it's in high season in the U.S.  The early asparagus tends to be pencil then while the later asparagus is more marker sized.  However, girth is no indicator of taste or tenderness.  Only the length of time between the farm and your table will determine how tough or flavorless it can become.  

For this pesto, I cooked the asparagus with a traditional blanch & shock (cooked in salted boiling water for about 8 minutes and then transferred to an ice bath) method.  I think next time I'll roast it (or even grill it) to give the pesto a more complex flavor.





About the Asparagus Pesto Recipe Ingredients


If you wind up using the Parmesan cheese in the recipe, I encourage you to seek out and use true Parmigiano-Reggiano.  This is the real deal from the province of Parma in Italy and has a much richer, nuttier flavor than it's domestic counterpart.  Since it also carries a heftier price, here's a little trick: see if your cheese counter sells Parmesan rinds.  They sell at a fraction of the price and are usually used for making soups.  You won't be able to get nice long slices for topping a salad, but you'll be able to grind out a few tablespoons of quality cheese with a box grater.  (Parmesan from a can is best avoided altogether.)

For the toasts, I brushed a few whole wheat pitas with olive oil, lightly salted them and cut into wedges.  Toast them in an oven at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, turning once about 15 minutes into cooking them.  This is very similar to my technique for making your own corn tortilla chips.  

Final note on the lemons.  I like the lemon juice here for two reasons: One is that it helps keep the pesto from turning brown while it's sitting out.  Second, the lemon juice brings a bright, spring-like flavor to the dish that highlights the seasonal freshness of asparagus and reminds us that winter is behind us.  Lemons.  An ingredient that brings both Form and Function to the table....I like it.






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Asparagus and Basil Pesto Recipe
A terrific pesto for serving with spring vegetables
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 2 cups
Ingredients
  • 1 pound Asparargus
  • 1 cup Fresh Basil, leaves packed
  • 3 Tablespoons Pine Nuts
  • 1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 3 Cloves Garlic
  • 2 Tablespoons Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice
  • 2 Tablespoons Grated Parmesan (optional)
Instructions
  1. Cook the asparagus (either by boiling or steaming) for about 8-10 minutes until it turns bright green and the stem end can just be pierced with a fork. It should still be firm, that is, you shouldn't really be able to pinch it easily. If so, it's mushy - you've cooked it too long
  2. At the same time you can toast your pine nuts. Rub a very light coating of Olive Oil (not Extra Virgin, it will smoke) in a pan set to medium and toast the nuts for about 10 minutes as well. They should brown evenly, but will be noticeably darker on two sides. You can also do this in a toaster oven. Watch them closely! They can rapidly go from toasted to burnt.
  3. Place the garlic in the food processor first and pulse it a few times until the garlic is chopped
  4. Add the asparagus, basil, pine nuts, extra virgin olive oil, parmesan and lemon juice. Run the processor for about 30 seconds and then scrape down the sides of the bowl. Check the flavor and add salt & pepper (or other ingredients) as needed. Run the processor again until you feel it is fully mixed.

Featured on:
Blissfully Domestic's "13 Perfect Asparagus Recipes for Spring", April 2013
Family Balance Sheet's "20 Ways to Cook Asparagus", April 2013