Judy’s Gift – Asparagus and Feta Pasta Salad

Being on vacation this week is blissful. Being on vacation this week without any plans at all is pretty sweet. Being on vacation this week with ample time to write and add to my blog is heaven! It is extremely rejuvenating to simply breath… To wake up with the sun, grab a coffee, read stuff I never take the time to read, in my PJs until late in the morning, now this is what I call a real vacation from life! I can even take the time to write without guilt: no chores really, no appointments, no meetings. I am hanging up my everyday life on the line to dry for a moment and doing the little fun things that never seem to fit in the agenda of that everyday life.

It’s a beautiful summer day here today in Canada’s National Capital. I will soon shut down my computer to go for a long walk and soak it all in, maybe even grab a little lunch. If the energy stays high, once I return from my promenade on the market and around Parliament Hill, I may take my bicycle for a ride along the Rideau Canal. It is that type of day: blue skies, warm sun, not too hot, not too cool, lovely breeze and zero humidity. Niiiiiiice! But before I go out and play tourist in my own hometown, I am diving into my blog sharing another little delicious morsel of life in my kitchen. Because I have the time!!!! Yay!

So I decided I would share a gift from Judy. Judy is my King’s cousin. A very lovely person I am happy to count as family… Judy is also an amazing cook. If you tell her, she will brush off her talent with genuine humility, stating that she is simply passionate about cooking. She is more than simply passionate: she is one of that «breed» of home cooks that «gets it». When we get together (sadly not as often as we should), we can talk hours on end about food, about how this ingredient works well paired with that ingredient, about this new technique, this perfectly balanced soup… And of course,  when we taste something the other has done that is purely genius, we share recipes. Like the King, Judy’s heritage is East European and she often dips into her knowledge of Old World cooking, concocting recipes intertwined with history, family as well New World living. A bit of modern mixed in with the old! I call it generational gastronomy: the legacy of mothers teaching their daughters the culinary secrets their own mothers had parted with, each one adapting the recipes slightly to suit their own needs, taste and ingredient availability. This may sound rather gender biased but the truth of the matter is that more often than none, generational cooking and family heirloom recipes are kept alive mostly by the women of a family… And so because of Judy’s extreme talent and knowledge in the kitchen, her secret stash of prized family recipes, her passion for all food related topics, I truly cherish the recipes so generously handed to me as true gifts!

Years ago, we had a family gathering potluck style and Judy brought along this amazing pasta salad. I fell head over heels in love with that salad. Moonstruck! Later on, this salad became a very popular menu item in my restaurant. I even landed a spot on a televised cooking competition with that recipe! Judy will tell you that the following recipe I am about to share is not exactly her original recipe because of course, I have tweaked it to make it my own. That is the nature of those who have a love affair with cooking: to get inspired by recipes and to freely adapt on a whim. However, there are very few variations to the original here: Judy’s ultimate salad was finished with thin slices of prosciutto and, if my memory serves me right, she used toasted pine nuts  instead of almonds. I removed the prosciutto from my recipe simply because the lemon’s acidity  altered the colour and texture of the ham rather quickly: to avoid this, when I do add  prosciutto to my salad, I add it at the last minute because it simply pairs sooooo well with the rest of the ingredients. Like with any recipe, to ad lib is the most fun: feta can be swapped for any cheese that can withstand being tossed around with vinaigrette. Asparagus can take the side road when not in season and be replaced with courgettes, green beans, sweet peas, in fact, any vegetable that enjoys the company of lemon juice and salty cheese! It is a simple and fresh alternative to the good old macaroni salad, perfect for a family BBQ, a picnic and can even become the main of a simple dinner when the outside temperature makes any cook shy away from working over a hot stove for any longer time than needed. . As a matter of fact, all ingredients can be prepared and tossed together ahead of time , adding the vinaigrette just before it is time to serve. Because it does not contain mayonnaise, it will tolerate picnic conditions quite well. Although the pasta will absorb a fair bit of the dressing after a while, it still keeps pretty good when refrigerated overnight becoming a great easy “grab and go” lunch on the next day.

I hope you enjoy Judy’s gift to me which I now pay forward to you!

Asparagus and Feta Pasta Salad

What you need

1 bunch (about 1lb/450g) asparagus trimmed and cut in 1 inch length
¾ cup slivered almonds, toasted
¾ cup crumbled feta
2 tbsp finely chopped green onions
1 lb (450g) pasta cooked al dente. I like to use farfalle because they hold their shape really well and the dressing lodges itself in the crinkled centers. fusilli, orchiette or rotini would be a great alternative
½ cup fresh chopped parsley

Vinaigrette

The zest and juice of one lemon, about ½ cup (125ml)
1 tbsp grainy mustard
1 cup (250ml) olive oil
1 tsp salt
Salt and pepper to taste

How to make it

  • Whisk together lemon zest & juice, mustard and salt and pepper. Add oil and shake well. Set aside
  • Set a large pot of water over stovetop and bring to a boil. Add 2 tsp of salt.
  • Cook pasta until al dente. Do not over cook as pasta: it will become soggy when the vinaigrette is added ahead of time if the pasta is overcooked
  • Add the asparagus to the pasta for the last few minutes of the recommended pasta cooking time. Again, do not overcook. About 3-5 minutes will do: 3 minutes for thin asparagus and 5 minutes for asparagus with very thick stalks. Check often to ensure asparagus are not overcooked. Immediately rinse and submerge pasta and asparagus in cold water. Let cool thoroughly and drain. If you are not comfortable gaging the asparagus cooking time by adding them to the pasta water, cook them separately. As per usual, I like to reduce the clean up time in the kitchen and this one pot cooking option works great for me.
  • In large bowl, toss asparagus, pasta, feta and green onions, using your fingers to toss well. Add enough vinaigrette to cover the salad. Adjust salt and pepper.
  • Toss in the toasted almonds and parsley and mix everything well
  • Optional last minutes toppers: fresh or crisp prosciutto, crisp bacon bits, shave parmesan flakes…

Time to unwrap the gift and enjoy!

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