Spring salads bring in the season with snap

March 18, 2022

After a confusing week of weather, followed by the shift to daylight saving time, most of us are more than ready for spring. In the garden and in the produce aisle, this will mean an abundance of local asparagus, tart radishes, tender peas and juicy strawberries. What better way to feature these fresh ingredients than in a salad, starting with the pasta dish in the photo.

This recipe is an excellent tutorial on why you should always save your pasta water. Pasta, which is made from flour, releases starch into the cooking water as it boils. If you’re like me, you too often forget and simply dump the cooked pasta into a colander, letting that precious cloudy liquid wash down the drain. Saving this valuable ingredient will make a big difference in the quality of your sauce.

If you’ve ever been served a plate of pasta that has a puddle of red liquid around the edges, you’ve seen the separation of oil and water in the sauce. If, on the other hand, you take advantage of the emulsifying and thickening properties of pasta water, your sauce will become creamier and denser as the liquids and oils bind together. And, whether or not you save the water (of course you should), you should never rinse cooked pasta; you want that starchy coating to help the sauce adhere.

Dealing with a boiling hot (and typically quite large) pot, it’s easy to see how the cooking water is often lost. There are some simple techniques that can help. If you are going to use a colander, before you drain, capture a few ladles of the cooking water in a bowl or glass measuring cup. You can use tongs to remove pasta strands or a skimmer ladle for smaller shapes.

Another, more expensive option is to purchase a pasta pot. These are designed to include a strainer insert that allows you to lift the cooked pasta from the water while retaining the liquid in the pot. As for the best way to serve pasta, you never want to pile it onto a plate and spoon the sauce over it. You want to finish cooking the pasta in the same pan with the sauce, using the pasta water to bring everything together.

Starting with the first recipe, we’re saluting spring with a combination of tiny peas, bias-cut asparagus and slivers of red onion. The flavors of the vegetables are brightened with lemon juice and zest, followed by sprinkles of parsley and grated cheese. Toasted pine nuts finish the dish, adding crunch to the creamy texture of the pasta.

The next recipe features baby spinach and sliced strawberries tossed in a creamy poppyseed dressing. The addition of feta cheese gives each bite a sharp and salty note, while the almonds provide crunch, and avocado chunks make every forkful a delight. The final salad recipe includes pan-grilled chicken tossed with baby arugula and a light soy-lime dressing. Happy spring!

Spring Pasta

8 oz rotini pasta

2 T olive oil

1/2 red onion

1/2 lb asparagus

1 C shelled peas

juice and zest of 1 lemon

1/3 C grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 T butter

1/4 C chopped parsley

salt & white pepper, to taste

1/4 C toasted pine nuts*

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high. When water boils, add pasta and cook 2 minutes fewer than the package instructs. While pasta cooks, prepare sauce. Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Thinly slice the red onion and add to the skillet. Cook until starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Trim the woody ends from the asparagus and slice into one-inch pieces on the bias. Add to the skillet and cook until green, about 3 minutes. Add peas and cook another 2 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the lemon juice, then add zest. Drain pasta, retaining 1 C of cooking liquid. Add pasta to the skillet along with cheese and butter. Add 1/2 C reserved water and stir to combine. Stir in parsley and season to taste with salt and white pepper. Serve garnished with toasted pine nuts. Yield: 4 servings. *Note: To toast pine nuts, place them in a dry skillet and cook over medium-high until lightly browned, shaking the skillet to keep them from burning.


Spinach & Strawberry Salad

5-oz pkg baby spinach

2 thinly sliced shallots

1 1/2 C sliced strawberries

1/2 C sliced almonds

1/2 C crumbled feta cheese

2 peeled, chopped avocados

1/4 C mayonnaise

1/4 C plain yogurt

1 T honey

1 t apple cider vinegar

1 T poppyseeds

In a large serving bowl, toss together spinach, shallots and strawberries. Scatter with almonds, feta cheese and avocado pieces. Whisk together remaining ingredients and pour over salad. Gently toss to coat completely. Yield: 4 servings.

Chicken & Strawberry Salad

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1/2 tsp paprika

salt & pepper

5 oz pkg baby arugula

1 C sliced strawberries

4 sliced green onions

1/4 C olive oil

1 t grated ginger

1 1/2 t soy sauce

1 t rice wine vinegar

1/2 t honey

juice of 1 lime

Sprinkle both sides of chicken with paprika, salt and pepper. Using a cast-iron grill pan or gas grill, cook chicken until no longer pink, turning once, about 5 minutes per side. Combine arugula, strawberries and green onion in a serving bowl; toss to combine.

Whisk together remaining ingredients; set aside. When chicken is cooked, cut into bite-sized pieces. Scatter chicken across the greens and pour on dressing. Toss gently to combine. Yield: 4 servings.


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