One of the pillars of great cooking is ensuring that each dish features ample textural contrast, an element as important as flavor. Once you strike the balance of sweet, salty, acidic, bitter and savory, it's crucial to consider creamy, crispy, chewy and more.
But incorporating different textures doesn't necessarily require additional ingredients. As in this lively springtime pasta dish inspired by one at the River Cafe in London, the solution can be as simple as cooking asparagus in two batches.
In this recipe from our book "Tuesday Nights Mediterranean," which features weeknight-friendly meals from the region, the asparagus is finely chopped in the food processor. Half is sautéed until tender and half is added later in the cooking to preserve its crisp texture. One vegetable, two textures.
A cup of cream and some of the starchy cooking water binds the asparagus into a silky sauce just thick enough to coat the chewy, al dente pasta.
Lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon juice at the table brighten up the flavors. And a quarter-cup of grated Parmesan lends a savory nuttiness that ties the flavors together.
Creamy asparagus pasta
Start to finish: 25 minutes
2 pounds asparagus, tough ends trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
8 ounces wide, flat pasta, such as tagliatelle or fettuccine
1 tablespoon salted butter
2 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 medium shallots, halved and thinly sliced
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more to serve
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest, plus lemon wedges to serve
In a food processor, pulse the asparagus until finely chopped, about 15 pulses. Measure out 1½ cups chopped asparagus and set aside.
In a large pot, bring 4 quarts water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta, then cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the cooking water, then drain.
Meanwhile, in a nonstick 12-inch skillet over medium-high, melt the butter. Add the garlic, shallots and ½ teaspoon salt, then cook, stirring occasionally, until the shallots are softened, one to two minutes. Add the asparagus in the processor and cook, stirring often, for two minutes. Add the cream and the reserved 1½ cups asparagus, then bring to a simmer over medium. Cook, stirring often, until a spoon drawn through the mixture leaves a two-second trail, two to three minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the Parmesan and ¼ teaspoon salt.
Add the drained pasta and ¼ cup of the reserved cooking water to the asparagus-cream mixture and set the pan over medium. Toss, adding cooking water 1 tablespoon at a time as needed, until the sauce is silky and clings to the pasta. Stir in the lemon zest, then taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve with additional Parmesan and lemon wedges.