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Lost Italian: Fresh asparagus salad will make you sing spring

Asparagus white bean salad. Dave Wallis / The Forum1 / 3
Asparagus, arugula, Yukon Gold potato, hazelnuts, Great Northern beans, lemon herb vinaigrette dressing and hard-boiled eggs are the ingredients of this salad. Dave Wallis / The Forum2 / 3
For best color, blanch the asparagus in briny water for one minute and dip into an ice bath. Dave Wallis / The Forum3 / 3

The official start of spring this year is March 20, and springtime veggies are already arriving at our local grocery stores, including our favorite, asparagus.

How can you tell when a vegetable is in season? First, pay attention to what is on sale in the produce departments — you will often find the best prices for a vegetable or fruit when it is at its peak in terms of freshness and abundance.

That's how we found the inspiration for this week's Asparagus Spring Salad recipe, which features a healthy dose of fresh asparagus showcased alongside white beans, hazelnuts, Yukon Gold potatoes, hardboiled egg and baby arugula.

As we were walking through the produce section at our local supermarket, we came across a grand display of fresh asparagus, tightly packed together in their signature bright blue bands, on sale for about three dollars a bunch. They were too pretty not to purchase.

When purchasing fresh asparagus, we look for a bunch with slender stalks, which are typically sweeter and more tender than thicker stalks. The stalks should be firm to the touch, still tender but not bendable. The tips should have a dark green or purplish hue, and appear tightly closed, not wilted. To keep asparagus fresh, store it in the refrigerator.

We love the inherent elegance of asparagus, but more than that, we appreciate the bounty of health benefits this vegetable offers. Asparagus is a great source for fiber, folate, vitamins A, C, E and K, and important antioxidants like glutathione, a detoxifying compound that combats carcinogens and free radicals.

This superfood is a regular guest at our table, where we've enjoyed it in salads, as a side dish either grilled or roasted, or even in an egg dish like an omelet or frittata.

You could use raw asparagus for this salad, but we prefer to blanch it first, which enhances the texture and color of the vegetable, and then shock it in an ice bath until it has completely cooled.

The components for this salad were chosen for their diversity of flavors and textures, as well as their color. Visually, we wanted a salad that would sing of the season with bright greens accented by neutral white and yellow tones.

The arugula provides a lush base and peppery punch, which complements the sweet and mellow asparagus. A healthy dose of protein comes from velvety white beans, crunchy hazelnuts and cheerful hard-boiled eggs, rounded out with the pleasing firmness of Yukon Gold potatoes.

For the lemon-herb vinaigrette, we chose to use Meyer lemons, which are wonderfully aromatic and less acidic than regular lemons, along with fresh parsley and tarragon. We like the gentle licorice notes of tarragon, but fresh basil would also work well.

Pretty, delicious and nutritious, this asparagus spring salad would be great served with fish or chicken. However you serve it, we hope it makes you sing, "Spring!"

Asparagus Spring Salad

Serves: 2 to 4

Salad ingredients:

½ pound fresh asparagus, rinsed, ends removed, blanched and cut into thirds or quarters (about 20 stalks)

4 cups baby arugula (or spring greens)

1 cup white beans, drained and rinsed (Great Northern or Cannellini)

½ cup hazelnuts, plain or toasted, coarsely chopped

8 to 10 baby Yukon Gold potatoes, cooked and cut into half-inch pieces, peeled or unpeeled

3 to 4 hard-boiled eggs, quartered (can be boiled 3 to 4 days in advance)

Lemon-herb vinaigrette

Vinaigrette ingredients:

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 ½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice, Meyer lemons preferred

½ teaspoon lemon zest, Meyer lemons preferred

1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, finely chopped (basil also works)

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped

Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Directions:

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, then blanch the asparagus spears quickly for about one minute, no more. Transfer immediately to a bowl filled with ice water, until completely cooled. Remove and dry on paper towels.

Place the potatoes in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer and cook until just fork tender but still firm, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from water and cool under running cold water until cool enough to touch. Cut into half-inch pieces and set aside.

As the potatoes cook, place all vinaigrette ingredients, except the salt and pepper, in a Mason jar, cover tightly and shake until emulsified. Taste and add salt and pepper as desired, starting with a ¼ teaspoon of each. Refrigerate for up to one week and shake vigorously before using.

Place the arugula in a large bowl and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Add a ¼ teaspoon of kosher salt and black pepper, then gently toss until evenly coated. Place a heaping mound of arugula on each serving plate.

Place the chopped asparagus and white beans in a medium bowl and drizzle with a tablespoon or two of the lemon-herb vinaigrette. Lightly toss until evenly coated. Arrange the asparagus and beans evenly atop the arugula.

Finish by evenly distributing the chopped potatoes, hazelnuts and hard-boiled eggs around each salad, then drizzle each serving with the lemon-herb vinaigrette.

Sarah's Tips:

• The potatoes can be boiled and refrigerated, whole, at least 1 day in advance.

• The asparagus and eggs can be blanched/cooked at least 3 days in advance.

• The vinaigrette can be refrigerated for 5 to 7 days.

"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com.

All previous recipes can be found at thelostitalian.areavoices.com.

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