You can put together this verdant, flavorful asparagus pasta pronto
Risotto is delicious, but the constant stirring can be tedious, and the large amount of butter called for mean it's reserved as an occasional indulgence. This pasta dish, using rice-like orzo, comes together much faster, and the creaminess comes from pureeing half of the asparagus in the recipe, leaving out the saturated fat.
I first made this with two classes of young children, so you know it's an easy one. Then, Slow Food USA asked me to give a cooking demonstration at the Bellavita Italian pavilion as part of the National Restaurant Association show at McCormick Place. Slow Food aims to create a world where all people can eat food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it, and good for the planet. My small farm and cooking school was awarded the Snail of Approval by Slow Food's Chicago chapter for practicing shared values. I wanted to showcase something I grew organically so that attendees could taste and appreciate "good, clean, fair food," the motto that sums up Slow Food's philosophy. This Lemony Asparagus Orzo would do nicely.
I was nervous about cooking in front of professional chefs, restaurateurs and some of Italy's top food producers. As I told the crowd, the secret to great cooking lies in your ingredients. Good, fresh basics will compensate for questionable techniques and other slip-ups. With some help from exhibitors, I had homegrown asparagus and herbs, plus olive oil from Tuscany, Parmesan from Parma and lemons from Target. I forgot to pack them and had to make an emergency stop en route to the convention. The point is that you do what you can with what you have and feel free to improvise liberally.
Asparagus does lose its nutrients and will toughen fairly quickly after harvest, so if you can find a local grower or are lucky enough to forage for the wild stuff, all the better. If the store is your only option, look for spears with tight heads. Treat them like fresh flowers, slicing off a bit of the bottom and placing them upright in a tall glass in the fridge. Try to use it as soon as possible. I like using as much of the spear as possible, chopping the bottoms into small pieces and sautéing with the aromatics or cooking then blending as I do here.
This recipe calls for turmeric, more for the color than the flavor. It's more affordable than the traditional saffron. It makes the orzo a lovely deep ocher shade that contrasts nicely with the green of the asparagus and herbs. I used a combination of parsley, tarragon, dill and thyme. If you grow chives that have flowered, sprinkle some purple florets across the top of the plated dish for an especially artful presentation with a welcome hint of onion on the palate. Weirdly, the kids I teach are obsessed with picking and eating raw chives, so we have been putting them in everything lately.
One question during the demo was about salting the pasta water. There are varying expert opinions on that, but I go with what the pasta experts in the crowd said: "ALWAYS! It should be like the sea."
When the Italians in the audience came back for samples to bring to their colleagues, I knew this recipe was a winner. It's fast enough for a weeknight supper but feels special. I hope you will try it while asparagus is still in season and fresh herbs are popping up in gardens.
• Leslie Meredith is the winner of the 2019 Cook of the Week Challenge and teaches people how to grow and cook "real" food. She runs Farmhouse School on a historic homestead in Campton Hills. See the school's Facebook or Instagram pages @FarmhouseSchool or contact Leslie at email@example.com.
The finished dish of Lemony Asparagus Orzo comes together quickly and is easy enough for kids to lend a hand.
- Courtesy of Leslie Meredith
Lemony Asparagus Orzo, or Asparagi al Limone con Orzo
1 bunch (about 12 stems) of asparagus
1 lemon, zested then juiced
2 cloves garlic, pressed
2 teaspoons salt, divided
½ teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1½ cups reserved asparagus cooking water
1½ cups chicken stock
¼ teaspoon turmeric
1 cup dry orzo pasta
½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
½ cup fresh herbs of your choice, chopped (I use parsley, tarragon, dill and thyme)
Set a pot of water to boil. Snap only the very woody ends off the asparagus stems. Cut the remainder in half, with the tip ends cut into 1-inch pieces and the bottoms chopped into smaller pieces. Boil these small pieces for 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and run under cold water. Transfer to a food processor or blender and puree until smooth.
Add longer pieces to the same pot of boiling water and cook for 1-2 minutes or until bright green and just-tender. Remove with a slotted spoon and run under cold water.
While asparagus cooks, whisk the lemon juice and zest, garlic, 1 teaspoon of salt and pepper and oil in a small bowl, or shake up in a lidded jar.
Ladle out all but 1½ cups of the asparagus cooking water and set aside. Add the stock and turmeric to the pot with the remaining teaspoon of salt. Add the orzo and cook according to package instructions, then drain. (If the orzo absorbs all of the liquid, add a bit more of the reserved asparagus water.)
Toss hot orzo with Parmesan, asparagus puree and pieces, herbs and dressing and serve.