Editor's note: Please welcome Lauren Rothman, who'll bring you the long-awaited return of our Vegetarian column! Expect a different creative, delicious take on a veggie dish in every piece. Take it away, Lauren!
It's a good time of year to be eating vegetarian: spring produce is out in full swing, and the real explosion of enticing summer vegetables—tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and many types of squash, just to name a few—is just around the corner. But although it would be great if those wonderful items would hurry up and ripen and magically appear at the greenmarket right now, in reality it's going to be a few more weeks between now and even an early summer tomato.
So what to do when the steamy, almost-summer weather has got you craving those iconic heat-loving vegetables, but what you've got on hand is spring produce whose season hasn't quite ended? It's easy: apply the classic summer cooking technique of grilling to coax out some lustier flavors from these naturally more delicate vegetables, then up the ante by mixing together a complex-tasting (but easy to make) almost-pesto that's crunchy from toasted almonds, grassy from fresh parsley, punchy from raw garlic and crushed red pepper flakes, and bright from lemon zest.
It's no big secret that asparagus is a minor revelation when grilled: it gets nutty, smoky, and beguiling in a way that blanched asparagus, clean and fresh-tasting as it is, never quite can. Grilling is the perfect application for later-season asparagus, which doesn't always have the same intense sweetness as the first stalks of the season: the high heat of the grill caramelizes the vegetable and draws out all that hidden complexity.
I call the sauce on top of this dish a gremolata, which commonly refers to the traditional condiment served on top of osso bucco: a mix of lemon zest, minced or grated garlic, and chopped parsley. But I add chopped almonds and a healthy glug of olive oil, situating the dressing somewhere between a gremolata and a pesto. It's the perfect complement to the grilled asparagus, taking the dish from interesting to off-the-charts packed with flavor. I think that the light, almost fruity taste of almonds makes the best match for the intense nuttiness of the asparagus, but you can feel free to substitute a favored nut such as walnuts or even pistachios for a green-on-green-on-green symphony.
Soon (oh so soon!) real summer produce will be here and we'll be reveling in the glory of juicy tomatoes, meaty eggplants, and crisp cucumbers. But until then, these bridge-the-gap spring-summer asparagus stalks will fit the bill quite nicely.