Celebrate spring with cheap asparagus

Spring Asparagus Couscous with slivered almonds instead of pine nuts and without the feta cheese. Jill Blanchette/The Day

Birds are singing, daffodils are blooming, and asparagus is on sale – it must be spring.

This recipe came to me by way of Pinterest and a favorite food blog, "Feasting at Home." It appealed to me because it combines three of my favorite ingredients: asparagus, Israeli couscous and lemon.

I broke one of my rules when I tried this dish. The first time I make a new recipe, I assemble all the specified ingredients and I follow the directions. No improvising. This allows me to taste exactly what the author intended so I can accurately judge not only the dish, but the cook who created it.

But on this day, I had other goals. I was trying to use up ingredients I already had on hand and while I was at the grocery store, I greatly overestimated both the contents of my refrigerator and the quality of said contents. In other words, I did not double check to make sure that the stuff that I thought I already had at home actually was there and actually was still good.

The unopened block of feta cheese that I thought I had turned out to be about a 1-inch cube of leftover, dried out feta that clearly had been open for weeks. The handful of fresh mint I thought I could find sprouting in the garden was there, but I just didn't have the heart to rip the baby sprouts from of the ground where they only just recently had fought to emerge.

And when I saw the price of a container of pine nuts – which I don't really like that much anyway – I made the executive decision to use slivered almonds instead.

So basically, the first time I made this dish, I actually didn't make this dish at all, but the result was delicious - a mild, lemony bowl of chewy couscous punctuated by crispy, toasted almonds and wonderfully fresh, cooked-just-right asparagus. It reminded me of another favorite, Fregola Salad with Broccoli and Onions, which I've written about in this column previously. Both showcase small, al dente pasta and a green vegetable cooked tender-crisp, and both use the brightness of fresh lemon to bring it all together.

So try this recipe as written – it is delicious that way, too. But don't be afraid to improvise. The addition of some beans – cannellini or garbanzo – would be delicious, as would some roasted red bell pepper. You could substitute toasted walnuts for the silvered almonds and perhaps add some dried fruit, some currants or dried cranberries. Instead of the couscous, you could use orzo, and in place of the whole grain mustard and red wine vinegar, you could choose Dijon and white balsamic. You could even garnish the salad with some chopped, hard-boiled egg or perhaps a handful of chopped, crispy bacon.

And if you'd rather have fewer carbs, just cut the amount of couscous in half. That way your salad will be less about the pasta and more about the asparagus. If you go that route, start by adding only half the dressing. You may not need all of it.

Enjoy!

Spring Asparagus Couscous

For the salad:

1-2 bunches asparagus (I used two)

2 cups Israeli couscous, uncooked (I used whole wheat)

½ cup Kalamata olives, pitted, sliced

½ cup feta (mine was hard as a rock so I left it out)

½ toasted pine nuts (I used slivered almonds)

Handful fresh mint, tarragon or Italian parsley (I used no fresh herbs)

Zest from one lemon

For the dressing:

3 tablespoons olive oil

1½ tablespoons whole grain mustard

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

½ tsp salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Snap off the tough bottoms of the asparagus stalks. Lay the trimmed asparagus on a baking sheet, drizzle with 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil, and sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt and cracked pepper, and half of the lemon zest. Roast in the oven until just tender, about 10-15 minutes, shaking the pan several times during the cooking. Cut the stalks into 2-to-3-inch pieces and set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add 2 cups of Israeli couscous, stir and cook until al dente, according to package directions.

While the couscous is cooking, make the dressing by stirring all ingredients together in a small bowl.

Drain couscous well and place it in a large bowl. Add the olives, asparagus, feta, pine nuts, fresh herbs, lemon zest and dressing, and toss to coat. Serve warm or at room temperature, or chill and serve cold later.

Original recipe from the "Feasting at Home: Seasonally inspired recipes from a caterer's home kitchen," a very nice, Washington state food blog by Sylvia Fountaine. Share comments and recipes with Jill at j.blanchette@theday.com.

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