Penne and Asparagus Salad with Pecans

This is either a very boring fact or a semi-interesting cooking tip, and if you grew up eating lots of Chinese food like me, you probably already know it even if it’s never been said aloud, but foods that share a similar shape and size go together. They just do. So if you’re cutting up chicken to go with green beans, you do long, thin strips. If you have something like fava beans and you’re cooking it with firm tofu, you’ll want to pare the tofu block down to small cubes. It’s not an ultimatum or anything beyond a little conventional wisdom, because things tend to cook more closely in speed if similarly sized. And your mouthfeel sensors will thank you, for giving it greater harmony.

Slender, late-spring asparagus cut to diagonal-edged logs and penne pasta just go together. Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. What could be more harmonious than getting a crunchy, juicy asparagus every other bite and a chewy, durum semolina bite in between? This salad is so simple it’s almost not even worth transcribing in the recipe below, but I gave it some chopped pecans for more texture, and a little chopped onion for flavor and because these two latter ingredients were roughly the same size, too, they clumped together nicely in these little parsley-flecked pats throughout the salad.

My camera is covered in glook right now from cooking and incessantly picking it up, putting it down, on top of the stove, fridge, greasy counter spots, and all that fun beating the poor thing takes on. But one thing I did not incessantly photograph was this salad, or not at all until it had been made, eaten, and was being put away. I know… it would have been nice (maybe I should just insert some “stalk” photography?). I’m obviously still living the asparagus high life right now, because I’ve never had such firm, crisp, tasty and fresh asparagus than the last few bunches I’ve gotten at the Greenmarket. So why not indulge while it’s still the right season? They’re healthy as hell, besides.

Which brings me to my next grievance: I hate blanching vegetables. I hate boiling vegetables (so archaic, so unflattering, so vitamin-depleting), and blanching just seems like a half-assed version. If there’s just a tinge of green in the water after the vegetables have been removed from it, I freak out and panic that all the nutrients are in there, and that I need to somehow drink the stuff up, or forever be robbed of the vegetables’ true bounty. I hate the watery transfers to an ice water “bath” right afterward, which all chefs recommend you do after blanching vegetables to “preserve the color,” which frankly is not one of my biggest concerns.

That said, I did blanch the asparagus for this recipe, because it seemed the easiest way of getting them to that perfect “crisp-tender” consistency that I love, and that works so well with pasta and a coat of oily dressing. Anyone have other ideas I’d love to hear about them. Or, if you can assure me that I’m not washing away my daily vitamins with a one-minute blanch, I would appreciate that, too.

Penne and Asparagus Salad with Pecans
(makes 2-3 servings)

1 bunch asparagus, tough ends snapped off
½ lb penne pasta, cooked to al dente and drained
½ cup chopped pecans
½ medium onion (red or white, or 2 scallions), finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon sea salt (or substitute regular salt)
freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Boil water in a shallow pan large enough to submerge the whole asparagus stalks. Drop in asparagus and cook for 1 minute. Remove with tongs or a slotted spoon and immediately place asparagus in a bowl of ice water. Let sit for 1-2 minutes, then remove and let dry.

Cut asparagus stalks diagonally into three or four 2” pieces. In a small bowl, whisk the lemon juice with the garlic, salt, pepper and red pepper and gradually pour in the olive oil while whisking to emulsify. Fold all the ingredients together in a large bowl and stir to coat evenly. Taste for seasoning, adding extra salt, pepper or extra olive oil, if desired.

Cost Calculator
(for 2-3 servings)

1 bunch asparagus: $3.50
½ box penne: $0.65
½ cup chopped pecans: $1.25
½ medium onion: $0.20
1 lemon: $0.33
1 bunch parsley: $1.50
4 tablespoons olive oil: $0.40
salt, pepper, red pepper, 2 cloves garlic: $0.15

Total: $7.98

Health Factor

Two brownie points: You recipe can take as little or as much olive oil as you care to give it, but it really is nice with a lot of it. The flavors are so mild that you just want to taste the olive oil tying them all together. Then, asparagus is a famously low-calorie source of a ton of nutrients, parsley is a minor player in packing in the leafy green vitamins, and the carbs in the pasta gives your energy something to chew on.

Green Factor

Five maple leaves: Unless you eked away your day making it from scratch, shaped pasta comes in a box. And the box (which you should recycle, by the way) came from… well, it depends. My box, Barilla, says, “Product of USA.” Okay. It would be interesting to see if the marketing hook that an Italian product is “Made in Italy” or “Imported” becomes a deterrent rather than a selling point for foods that can easily be made closer to home, like pasta for instance. In the meantime, with this recipe we’ve got pasta made in Illinois, asparagus, onion and garlic grown in nearby farms, a lemon that was not — we’re doing so-so here. And the olive oil from my old bottle that’s just about empty? “Imported.” I guess I must have been lured by that hook, or something.

12 Responses

  1. Moose

    That sounds delicious! As far as the nutrient thing goes, I’m not so sure, so I’d rather not feed you lies…

    Do you prefer to eat this dish hot or cold?

  2. Funny, I had never consciously thought of your ancient Chinese secret, but you’re right: the mouth prefers food that’s cut the same, and that makes it seem like it all goes together. It’s funny, how much of cooking really is unconscious and instinctual (but then, maybe that’s my problem…!)

    The fresh asparagus is flowing freely in these parts, and I have two market-fresh bunches in my fridge. Perhaps penne is in order. Thanks for the recipe!

  3. Joanna

    I don’t inherently hate the blanching process – it works so well with certain veggies, like green beans. But I hate hate HATE blanched asparagus. It just tastes… off to me, somehow. I read somewhere that the some of the compounds in asparagus that give it its flavor are water-soluble, while others are fat-soluble. So when you cook it in water, the water-soluble compounds tend to leech out and you get a different overall taste. I have no idea if any nutrients go along with them… or where I read about this actually… but it sounds good, right? 😉

    Anyway, when faced with a recipe that calls for blanching asparagus, I always just saute it in a little olive oil instead. Adds extra fat, I guess, but in a dish like this one you could just add less oil at the end to compensate.

  4. Liz

    Cathy, your heart is in the right place, but your science is all wrong. Blanching does a heck of a lot more than robbing a vegetable of nutrients. Blanching and shocking is possibly the best thing you can do to make vegetables as healthy as they can possibly be.

    Unlike fruits, vegetables (or the non seed producing portion of a plant) were not meant to be eaten. Fruits are created for seed distribution and procreation. The vegetable is the body of the plant itself, and like most living organisms, tries not to be killed and eaten. Over the milennia, most plants develop toxins (even if minute) to deter animals from eating them. Blanching a vegetable and then shocking it will cook the vegetable enough to kill the nasty toxins while leaving the vitamins and nutrients intact.

    Of course, this implies that you blanch correctly. Blanching greens is a simple and painless exercise. Take a large pot of vigorously boiling water. Place the vegetables in the water, but do not put too much in so that the water stops boiling, if the water stops boiling, the temperature has dropped too much and the blanch will not be perfect. For something like spinach, a few seconds is perfect. For medium thickness asparagus, 30-45 seconds. For broccoli, maybe 1:30.

    Transferring to an ice bath is just as essential. Not only does it preserve the color and make your vegetables beautiful, but it STOPS the cooking process. If the cooking continued, the that’s when all of the nutrients would break down and you would lose more of the vitamins and nutrients.

  5. cathy

    Liz: Thanks a lot for the tips. To be sure, I’m not against cooking vegetables in some fashion or another… I’m just being weird about blanching. And pointlessly so, as it would seem.

    Joanna: I think I know what you mean about the off-taste… I’m used to steaming asparagus, which seems to produce a different taste, to me. I’ll have to try this again and saute them next time. Thanks!

  6. Merrie

    Hey Cathy! This may sound imbecilic, but I am always looking for ways to decrease the sinkload of dishes, so when I make pasta, I throw in some veggies at the last minute with the boiling pasta, or steam them with some leftover pasta water. Also, in lieu of extra olive oil, cheese or butter, I usually add back a little pasta water (it was already salted).

  7. Gabi

    This looks incredibly delicious- I’ll try it!

  8. allergic diner

    This website is fantastic and I can’t wait to try the pasta. Hope you don’t mind if I add you to my blogroll!

  9. soopling

    oops, i posted on your squid post instead of this one. bah!

  10. […] Penne and Asparagus Salad with Pecans Pretty tasty and simple stuff from Not Eating Out in New York food blog (tags: recipe food salad pasta asparagus) […]

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  12. Olesya

    Great recipe. I’m going to try it. Thanks.

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