Asparagus & Strawberry Salad

Asparagus-Strawberry-Salad-1Like I mentioned in my Tyrian Edition of the Asparagus Season Celebration, I absolutely love asparagus. While I was growing up, the „usual“ way to serve them was pretty simple. A pile of white asparagus spears, a stack of crêpes or some potatoes, a selection of smoked or cured hams and a bowl of Sauce Hollandaise or Vinaigrette, with a side of fresh strawberries – what grows together, goes together, right?

One memorable evening, during the first asparagus season after I moved into my own appartment, I found myself in the kitchen, having a hard time with a pound of extraordinarily thin and fragile asparagus spears. They just kept breaking up instead of letting me peel them in peace. After I had fiddled the skin off of every spear, whole or broken, I had to re-think the idea of a nice plate filled with the things I mentioned above. I decided breaking the spears was a good start, and since nobody else was there to watch and judge me, cut them all into similar-sized pieces and turned them into a salad – one bowl, complete with the strawberries, the vinaigrette and some thinly sliced bits of smoked chicken breast. Very satisfied with what I salvaged from that minor crash, I moved on to intentionally preparing a salad like this and, over the years, tweaked the ingredients until I reached this point:

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During the blissful weeks of the asparagus season we have this on our dinner table about once a week and, thanks to a couple of variations, it never gets boring. Apart from the peeling ordeal it’s a real quick-fix and never fails to make us happy and well satisfied. So, here we go, one bowl of joy~

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Ok, I know this picture is out of focus, but this is what you get with a sexist camera in a foul mood. No matter what I did, it just didn’t focus…I just wanted to show you one of the variations anyways~

These amounts add up to a starter for 4 or a main dish for 2 hungry asparagus-fans

1kg fresh White Asparagus, peeled and cut into 2-3cm pieces
or: 500g White and 500g Green Asparagus – I use a green/white combo and a spicy steak pepper blend if I was able to get my hands on Bresaola to top off the salad
500g fresh Strawberries, carefully cleaned and quartered
½ Bunch of Chives, finely chopped
Opt: 100g Smoked Chicken Breast, finely sliced
Alt 1: Bresaola – my favorite choice to replace ham in dishes like this. Bresaola is very lean, very thinly sliced, air-dried cured beef. Sadly it’s not always easy to get…
Alt 2: Air-dried or Cured Ham of your choosing – Serrano and Bayonne go wonderfully with the strawberries
2 Tbsp Rosé Balsamic Vinegar
1 Tsp Aged Balsamic Vinegar
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 Tbsp mild Dijon Mustard
1 Tsp fine Caster Sugar
Sea Salt
freshly cracked Black Pepper or a pinch of your favorite Steak Pepper Blend if you’re using Bresaola or intense smoked hams

Alright. I know, I said it’s a quick-fix, and it really is. There’s just one little step you could take an hour in advance if you wanted to boost the strawberries a notch, an optional step-up, if you will. It’s fairly simple – macerate the strawberries, draw out some of their juices into the dressing, before putting together the salad.

1) Place the strawberries in a large mixing bowl and sprinkle them with the sugar. Drizzle the lot with the aged balsamic vinegar and give the bowl a gentle swirl to distribute the sugar and vinegar a bit more evenly – or give them a gentle stir with a wooden spoon, just make sure not to squish the berries in the process.
2) Cover the bowl with clingfilm and set it aside.
Now, if you’ve never used aged balsamic vinegar before, using just 1 tsp of vinegar for 500g of anything might seem rather pointless. Well, like with a really good oil or many of the other top shelf ingredients, a little goes a very long way. I’ve compiled a small list of how to find „your“ aged balsamic vinegar or oil – if you haven’t already – in case you’re not satisfied with the most popular, well known standard products below the recipe.
3) Before getting the asparagus going, get the dressing out of the way. Whisk the olive oil, mustard, rosé balsamic vinegar, and a pinch each of salt and pepper into a smooth and even liquid.
4) Pour this mix over the strawberries and top it off with the chives. Don’t mix them through, just let the strawberries sit under their new cover until you’re ready to assemble the salad.
5) Simmer the asparagus pieces in a large pot of lightly salted and sugared water set on medium heat until they’re softened but still have some bite to them. Depending on the thickness of the spears this takes about 5-10 mins.
6) Whenever I’m using white and green asparagus, I pop the greens into a sieve and submerge the lot in the pot with the simmering whites for a couple of minutes to blanch the green ones without having to double the time or used kitchenware. The green ones take less time – you could actually eat them raw, but… I suppose it’s an aquired taste – so using a sieve is the easiest way to adjust to variying cooking times.
7) Bite-test one of the thicker bits to determine whether the asparagus are done.
8) As soon as you’re satisfied, take them off the heat and thoroughly rinse them with cold water to stop the cooking process. If you have a lot of ice cubes at your disposal, fill a large bowl with a 50/50 ratio of cold water and ice cubes – leave enough room for your asparagus – and add the pieces to that bowl to cool off.
9) You could also just give them a quick rinse and serve the salad while it’s still slightly warm, just make sure to take out the asparagus a bit earlier so they don’t turn mushy on your plate.
10) Give the strawberries a gentle stir to combine the strawberry juices with the dressing on top.
11) Have a taste of the dressing. If the strawberries weren’t perfectly ripe, the vinegar and mustard might have a bit much of a zing to them, so you might want to adjust that with a drizzle of honey. If it turns out to be too sweet, add some more rosé or white balsamic vinegar. Hold back the salt and pepper adjustments until after you’ve added the asparagus.
12) Gently fold the asparagus pieces into your strawberry-dressing combo until they’re evenly covered with a hin layer of the dressing.
13) Pick up a piece of asparagus and a strawberry, preferably with a chive ringlet or two to judge and adjust the seasoning.
14) If you’re going with the charcuterie options, finely slice them and either fold them into the salad or scatter them on top of the servings. Or, if you’re going for the ooohs-and-aaahs, arrange them into flower-shapes and garnish the plates with them.
15) Divide the salad onto plates, drizzle them with what’s left in the bowl, serve and enjoy~!

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Now, here’s my 2 cents on special goodies, aged vinegars and their likes~
I’ve been shaking my head at some of the price tags, especially in the oils&vinegars department, for a long time. While I discovered pretty early that not using any vinegar at all was far better than using the „bargain“ 1,99€ swill they call „Balsamic Vinegar“, but having to cough up 15€ for a 150ml bottle of the „good stuff“ still seemed… downright insulting. The tags on good oils were even more outrageous – still are, for that matter – but a wonderful trio of oils that came my way on a christmas eve around 10 years ago softened my fangs-and-claws-out-attitude towards seemingly overpriced and overrated items like that. 2-3 drops of that pumpkinseed oil turned a really large bowl of lambs lettuce into something absolutely divine – take it from someone who usually gives pumpkin seeds a very wide berth. The olive oil still sings in my memory… where was I… ah, the reluctance to pay a lot of money for seemingly nothing. Well, since that first taste of top quality oils, I’ve made a habit of having a small selection of bonus-goodies around. Namely a very small bottle of extremely good aged balsamic vinegar, sitting next to similar sized bottles of top quality olive oil, walnut oil and sherry vinegar on my kitchen shelf. They’re not the most expensive, showy options in their category, but the best (for me) I unearthed over the years. I only use them for finishing off dishes, for dotting the i’s, so to speak, so they keep forever and then some if stored right. That and the fact that they have such a great impact on a dish is a huge dampener on the sting I feel when the time comes to replenish my stock. Like once a year. Here’s my advice for finding that one special piece of bottled makes-your-knees-buckle~
– Don’t shoot straight for the most expensive ones, you will most likely waste a lot of money that way.
– If you have the chance, take a trip to a foodie/craft store, large farmer’s market or italian/spanish/greek speciality store. There you’ll most likely get the chance to taste whatever you’re looking for. That’s the way I picked out „my“ olive oil and „my“ aged balsamic vinegar. The walnut oil was a lucky find on a medieval festival we visit every year – and every year I use that trip to pick up a new shiny.
– If you don’t have any of those options nearby, skimming peoples comments on shop sites can help more than reading the producer’s note on their merchandise.
– I found a lot of the smaller online shops sell or give away small samples, especially of the somewhat higher priced products on offer. Use that opportunity to pick out something you’re happy paying an extra buck for. A combination of reading customer comments and ordering samples of the favorites brought me my sherry vinegar.
– Keep your eyes open for things like that in unlikely places. One of the oldest, family-run apothecaries in our region, for example, had ties to an italian olive orchard. They used to produce their own extraordinary olive oil until the business skyrocketed (and their prices along with it) to a point where they just couldn’t serve the demand anymore. As far as I know, a bad year or two for the olives on top of the scramble to produce more and more closed the lid on that barrel for good. Another example: A small store in town, specializing in Whiskey and various rare types of booze, also sells insanely tasty fruit vinegars and infused oils – all of which can be sampled right then and there. Since Whiskey is a type of booze totally wasted on me, I would never have found out about that if I hadn’t arranged a Whiskey-tasting shindig for hubby’s birthday one year.
– Don’t do any of the things I’ve just mentioned in a hurry. The search for something special has to be a fun thing and, as these things go, the best things will find you when you’re not frantically looking for them. If you need get your hands on something quickly, going with the bestsellers or with what you know is, in most cases at least, a safe bet.

And that, as they say, is that. Enough ramblings on things you guys probably know already, so… I hope you guys enjoy the salad and stick around for next week’s very berry sweet treat!

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