Based on a lively side dish we had on a recent trip, this quick vegetarian pasta dish makes the most of in-season-now asparagus and gets a bright flavor boost from balsamic vinegar. Recipe below.
We were in St. Louis a few weeks ago, visiting our friends Rich and Laura. As usual, we ate lots of good food there. Scoops of Ozark black walnut ice cream at Crown Candy Kitchen. Heart healthy (and satisfying) egg white breakfast sandwiches at the bustling Nadoz Euro Bakery and Cafe. Local, seasonal-focused classic French cuisine at Franco, housed in the former Welsh Baby Carriage Factory across the street from Soulard Market.
But our favorite meal was prepared in our friends’ hardworking, beautiful open kitchen. Laura is a vegetarian whose diet skews mostly vegan, with detours into pescetarian. That doesn’t keep her from cooking meat for her omnivorous family and friends, though.
The meal in question involved a wonderful mushroom-stuffed rolled pork tenderloin, pan seared, then roasted. Don’t be surprised if a version turns up here one day. As delicious as the tenderloin was, this week’s recipe was inspired by her show-stealing side dish—steamed asparagus topped with sautéed grape tomatoes finished with garlic and balsamic vinegar and topped with dollops of goat cheese. The big flavors of the tomatoes and asparagus are enhanced by the vinegar, and everything is balanced by the creamy goat cheese. To give it a starring role, I turned this flavorful side into a vegetarian pasta main course.
Asparagus is in season now, beckoning from produce shelves everywhere. For this dish, you don’t need the pencil-skinny spears, but you definitely don’t want the chunky asparagus cigars (I mean seriously, who ever wants those?). Skinny to medium spears will work best.
For the tomatoes, smallish grape tomatoes are best. If all you can get are cherry tomatoes, halve them before cooking.
Before I get to the recipe, I’d like to share a non-culinary taste of St. Louis. Marion and I have followed local bluesman Leroy Pierson for years. When we lived in St. Louis, we spent more Saturday nights than not dancing to Leroy and his band playing an amazing mix of rock, reggae and blues at the Broadway Oyster Bar.
Leroy earned his blues chops honestly, studying with Delta blues legend Mississippi Fred McDowell (along with Bonnie Raitt). He was also a student and friend of Henry Townsend. He now plays solo blues sets most Friday nights at BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups, and we time our St. Louis visits to catch his performances.
On our most recent visit, Leroy coaxed former band member Dominic Schaeffer onstage to join him in singing Fred McDowell’s You Gotta Move. We also followed our friend Dominic’s numerous bands when we lived in St. Louis. Seeing them together again was a special treat.
Linguine with Asparagus, Tomatoes and Goat Cheese
12 to 16 asparagus spears, tough ends trimmed, cut into 1-1/2-inch pieces (about 1-1/2 cups)
7 ounces linguine (or fettuccine or spaghetti)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1-1/2 cups cherry tomatoes
freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1 tablespoon fresh)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 ounces goat cheese
Bring a large pot of water to boil for the pasta. When it comes to a full boil, blanch the asparagus pieces by dumping them in the pot of water, cooking them for 1 minute, then transferring them to a bowl of iced water with a slotted spoon.
Cook the pasta to al dente, following the package instructions. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large nonstick sauté pan over medium flame. Add the tomatoes and sauté until they begin to soften, burst and brown slightly, stirring frequently, about 4 to 5 minutes.
Drain the asparagus pieces and add them to the pan. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 2 minutes. Season with a generous grind of black pepper. Add garlic and oregano to pan and cook, stirring, until just fragrant, about 45 seconds. Remove from heat and stir in vinegar.
Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta water. Add pasta to asparagus and tomato mixture and toss to coat. If the dish seems dry, add pasta water 2 tablespoons at a time as needed. Taste and adjust seasonings. Divide between two pasta bowls, crumble goat cheese over pasta and serve.