Let pasta play second fiddle when asparagus takes the lead

Asparagus Puttanesca
Asparagus Puttanesca

Pasta. Noodles. Macaroni. Whatever you call it, I could eat it at every meal.

I mean, what’s not to like? You put cheese on it. It’s really fun to roll it around your fork and make noises while you slurp it up. It offers a delicious, blank yet tasty canvas for a huge, multi-cultural variety of sauces and preparations. And, for me, when it comes to comfort food, it is the holy grail.

But since I began to try to transform my cuisine into one that features mostly close-to-the-source, plant-based foods, I have had to rethink pasta. As much as I love a huge bowl of linguini with olive oil, garlic and Parmesan cheese, I just can’t eat it regularly and achieve my health and weight-loss goals. But I can’t live without it either, so I developed a strategy.

I decided that I would try to make pasta the accompaniment to the topping rather than the other way around.

You can apply it to many traditional Italian pasta dishes. If you love broccoli rabe and penne, just double the rabe and cut the penne amount in half. If you like broccoli in your macaroni and cheese, just double the broccoli and use half the macaroni. Cauliflower with orricheti? Ziti with eggplant? Cabbage with farfalle? It really works. It gives you the satisfaction of the pasta while you’re actually filling up on the vegetables.

It even works with sauces that don’t traditionally contain vegetables. I first experimented with one of my favorites, puttanesca. It’s a sharp, spicy sauce with a name that comes from the Italian word for ladies of the evening. Its traditional ingredients — garlic, olives, tomatoes, red pepper flakes, capers and anchovies — are all things a working woman might keep in her cupboard. After a hard night’s work, she could boil some pasta, throw a quick sauce together and enjoy a delicious, inexpensive meal.

I also love asparagus. The lovely spring green stalks, like garlic, onions and leeks, are members of the lily family. The name comes from the Greek word for stalk or shoot, which is fitting because asparagus are the first spring shoots of a particular fern. It may seem counter intuitive, but the larger the diameter of the stalk, the more tender the asparagus.

When you buy them, look for fat stalks with tips that are tightly closed. Check the bunch to make sure the stalks are relatively uniform in size, so they’ll cook at the same rate.

In my Asparagus Puttanesca, I often skip the anchovies and instead of red pepper flakes and capers, I substitute hot banana pepper rings, which you can find in a jar in the pickle aisle. They have the sharp, vinegary tang of the capers without that odd musty flavor, and they’re much less expensive and more versatile — they’re great on salads and in sandwiches. The pepper rings provide some mild heat, but if it’s not hot enough for you, add some red pepper flakes, too.

I also have made this same recipe using green beans or cauliflower. Both were good, but for me, the asparagus is the best. It really stands up to the other strong flavors in this dish and adds its own bit of green freshness.

I don’t usually measure when I make this recipe so these amounts are estimates. Sometimes I use more asparagus, sometimes less. Sometimes I have more pepper rings than kalamata olives, sometimes it’s the opposite. It doesn’t seem to matter so feel free to use these measurements as guidelines, and add things in amounts that look good to you.

Also, the goal is here is to have the pasta done when the asparagus is done so you can combine the two in the skillet over heat, continuing to develop the sauce by adding some of the pasta cooking liquid, without overcooking anything.



Asparagus Puttanesca

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 red onion, coarsely chopped

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)

1 pound of asparagus, ends snapped off, stalks cut diagonally into 1½- to 2-inch pieces

2 medium cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup pitted kalamata olives, coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil, sliced into slivers

3 tablespoons hot banana pepper rings, coarsely chopped

¼ to ½ pound whole wheat angel hair pasta, thin spaghetti, spaghetti or linguini

About 2 cups of reserved pasta cooking water

At least 1 cup grated parmesan and/or Romano cheese

Set a large pot of water on the stove and bring to a boil in preparation for cooking your pasta.

Rinse the asparagus then, one at a time, snap off the bottom end of each stalk. Allow the stem to snap where it will, as this eliminates any tough portions. Prepare all the rest of your ingredients as directed.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high until it ripples. Add onion, red pepper flakes and asparagus, tossing or stirring to coat in the oil. Allow to cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and toss to combine. Lower the heat to medium, cover the pan and continue to cook about another 5 minutes until the asparagus becomes bright green, and tender yet still a bit crisp.

When the water in your pot is boiling, cook the pasta to the al dente stage according to the package directions. Before you drain the pasta, dip a 2-cup measure into the pot and scoop out as much liquid as you can without burning your hand. Set the liquid aside.

Remove the cover on your skillet and check your asparagus. If a lot of liquid has accumulated, turn up the heat a bit, then add the chopped olives, peppers and sun-dried tomatoes and stir to combine and cook until the asparagus is done to your liking.

With the heat under the skillet at medium to medium-low, dump the cooked pasta on top of the asparagus. You want to keep things bubbling and sizzling, but you don’t want the pasta to stick so work quickly. Lift and stir the pasta to combine with the asparagus. Add some of the reserved pasta water, start with about half a cup. Keep adding and stirring until you see the pasta and vegetables begin to come together. You probably won’t use all the reserved pasta water.

Turn off the heat and stir in a handful or two (about half a cup) of grated cheese. Serve with additional cheese.


Jill Blanchette works at night at The Day. Share comments or recipes with her at j.blanchette@theday.com.

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