I don’t know about you, but I really struggle with being disciplined in multiple areas of my life simultaneously. I CAN focus extremely well, but that focus is usually confined to one activity at a time. The fire has been cranked up under Project X, something that has demanded a hell of a lot of mental energy on my part as well as a willingness to travel like never before, but the recent developments are exciting and I look forward to being able to share it with you soon. I also spent all of April practicing like a maniac, as I played a chamber music concert with the great pianist Menahem Pressler on Friday night in LA. In preparing to play with one of the major giants of the classical music world, I thought it was wiser to focus on being a serious Fiddler at the expense of the Kitchen aspect of my life. So while I may not have cooked very much this spring—writing and blogging even less frequently—I’m glad in the end that I did spend all of those countless hours in the practice room because Friday’s concert was a true joy to play.
I have had the privilege of playing chamber music with Mr. Pressler for the past four years when he comes for an annual visit to Biola University, where my parents teach. It is always an incredible week of intense music-making and master classes, being totally inspired by THAT SOUND that I grew up listening to on recordings and in concerts. In between rehearsals, everyone comes to our house for breakfast/lunch/dinner where all three Owens take turns whipping up a storm in the kitchen while Mr. Pressler regales us with stories from an amazing musical life.
Unlike last year when I did the lion’s share of the cooking, this year I had more on my proverbial plate as I was playing the Schubert A Major Duo with Mr. Pressler as well as the Schumann Piano Quintet, so I left the cooking to my parents for the first few days. Mom is the gracious hostess extraordinaire who makes everything beautiful while Dad, who spent much of his sabbatical last fall honing his culinary prowess to an impressive degree, totally blew me away with his remarkable knife skills and his beautifully balanced layers of flavor. Once the concert was over, I was in the kitchen the next day, creating a festive spring lunch for everyone to enjoy on the break during an extended day of piano master classes at the university. What better way to celebrate a gorgeous first day of May than with a Sliced Spring Salad with Avocado and Feta and a lively Asparagus Pasta?
This dish has been in my repertoire for a decade now, one that joyfully declares, “Spring is here!” to all who taste it. The asparagus stalks are blanched before being pureed with sautéed shallots, fresh lemon, olive oil and a bit of the asparagus cooking water. The resulting sauce is at once velvety yet light, binding the cooked pasta and blanched asparagus tips together in a delightful and unexpected way. A healthy scattering of grated parmesan cheese ties it all together in the end.
This is a terrific pasta recipe for all sorts of occasions. Not only is it the perfect way to herald the official arrival of spring, this recipe is also going to be your best friend if you’re tired from playing a big concert the night before but want spring-y comfort food. If you happened to make a post-concert run to In-n-Out Burger with your pianist (!!!) and are trying to eat a little lighter the next day, I can tell you from first-hand experience that you’ll want to make this. And when you’re trying to appease your readers and give them a recipe that will let them know how much you appreciate their patience with you while you were MIA, I think that this Asparagus Pasta will be just the ticket. You'll have to let me know.
One Year Ago: Puerto Rican Chicken with Saffron Rice, Spring Risotto with Asparagus and Wild Mushrooms
Adapted from a recipe by Faith Heller Willinger, Gourmet May 2000.
I’ve adapted the recipe slightly from the original I read years ago, adding sautéed shallots and garlic to give the sauce a little more flavor. Make sure to taste the sauce for balance, as you may want to adjust the salt&pepper or add more lemon for brightness. Choose a short tubular pasta that is similar in size to the asparagus tips, such as penne or gemelli twists.
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 large shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 pound asparagus, woody ends trimmed and discarded, cut into 1-inch pieces
The juice and finely grated zest from 1 lemon
1 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground pepper
½ pound penne or gemelli pasta
½ cup grated parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat in a nonstick skillet. Add the minced shallot and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until it has softened. Add the minced garlic and cook for an additional 30 seconds, but do not let the garlic brown. Remove from heat and set aside.
Cut the asparagus into 1-inch pieces, reserving the tips separately. Bring a large saucepan of heavily salted water to a rolling boil. Cook the asparagus stems until they are very tender, about 5 to 6 minutes.
Turn of the heat and remove the asparagus pieces from the water with a slotted spoon, reserving the cooking water, and transfer to a blender or food processor. Measure out ¼ cup of the cooking water and add that to the blender along with the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, the fresh lemon juice and zest, and the sautéed shallots and garlic. Add a teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper, and puree until smooth. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed, adding more salt and pepper and/or lemon to suit your taste.
Return the pot of water to a boil. Cook the asparagus tips separately, about 2 minutes, just until barely tender-crisp. Remove from the water with a slotted spoon to a colander and rinse under cold water. Drain well and set aside.
Return the cooking water to a boil and cook the pasta until it is just al dente, which will probably be a minute or two less than the recommended package directions. Reserve 1 cup of the cooking water before draining the cooked pasta in a colander. Return it to the pan and add the pureed asparagus sauce. Stir in the reserved asparagus tips and the grated parmesan and heat until the sauce is warmed and the cheese begins to melt. If the sauce is too thick, add a little of the pasta cooking water, ¼ cup at a time, until it is to your liking. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed, and serve immediately in wide shallow bowls. Serve with additional parmesan to pass at the table. Serves 4.