I love this time of year, when I can go to the grocery store and buy as much asparagus as I want without taking out a second mortgage on my house. But the problem with asparagus, from a food blogger’s standpoint, is that it’s a vegetable that tastes best when prepared simply. Its delicate flavor needs no more adornment than, maybe, a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of salt, and its texture is perfect with no more than the merest blush of heat. So once you know how to roast it, blanch it, grill it, or make it into pesto, there isn’t much left for me to tell you. You don’t need wild combinations of ingredients or fancy seasonings to enjoy asparagus, just your fork (or in my home, your fingers).
So here I present to you the most basic preparation of asparagus, blanched with a sprinkle of lemon zest and salt, on top of something that sounds fancy but is really homey and hearty: polenta (cornmeal mush or grits, as we call it here) and chickpeas. A light hand with the lemon and freshly ground black pepper lets the fresh asparagus flavor shine through, and a sprinkle of pine nuts pulls the whole dish together. On second thought, maybe it is a little fancy after all!
Polenta with Lemony Asparagus and Chickpeas
- 2 1/4 cups water
- 2 cups vegetable broth or “no-chicken” broth
- 1 cup coarse polenta coarse grind, such as Bob's Red Mill, not instant polenta
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1/2 medium onion chopped fine
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas or canned, drained and rinsed
- 1/2 cup vegetable broth or “no-chicken” broth
- 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest peel, freshly grated
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon arrowroot or cornstarch
- 1/4 cup water
- 12 ounces asparagus ends trimmed and stalks cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 teaspoon lemon peel freshly grated
- lemon juice to taste
- coarse or flaky salt such as Maldon, to taste
- 4 teaspoons pine nuts lightly toasted
Bring the 2 1/4 cups water and the 2 cups vegetable broth to a boil in a pressure cooker. Add the polenta while stirring. Stir in the garlic and basil, lock the lid in place, and bring to high pressure. Reduce heat but maintain high pressure for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let pressure come down naturally. Stir well, salt to taste, and keep warm until ready to serve. (No pressure cooker? See note below)
While the polenta is cooking, sauté the onion in a medium-sized sauce pan until it begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and drained chickpeas and stir for another minute. Add the broth, basil, and pepper. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the lemon peel and juice. Mix the arrowroot or cornstarch with 1/4 cup water and add it to the pan. Cook over medium low heat until slightly thickened. Keep warm.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and blanch asparagus for 2 minutes. Drain well and toss with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of lemon zest, and coarse salt to taste. Divide the polenta among 4 plates, and top each with a quarter of the chickpeas and asparagus. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of toasted pine nuts over each serving.
To make polenta without a pressure cooker, use 2 cups broth and 1 cup water. Bring liquids to a boil in a heavy, deep saucepan, and slowly stir in polenta, garlic, and basil. Reduce heat and simmer gently, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, until very thick (about 30 minutes). (Be careful and use a long-handled spoon because mixture can bubble and spit hot corn meal on your hand.) Add salt to taste and keep warm until ready to serve.
Also note: These polenta instructions are for cooking coarse polenta, not instant or quick-cooking grits. If you are using one of those products, follow the liquid/polenta ratio and times on the package.