It’s so nice to see fresh spring produce finding its way back to local Farmers’ Markets again. Do you do a little dance when you see the bundles of asparagus at the farmers’ stall as well? Good! I’m glad I’m not the only one who adores this spring vegetable with abandon. How lucky am I that Dixon brings me all the asparagus I could ever want?! I certainly hit the jackpot with that man. Needless to say, I’ve been eating asparagus several times a week, making the most of the time we have together (which will be until the end of June.) I like to trim the ends, discard the tough, woody stems, then I put it in a frying pan with a little water and steam it until it’s tender. I drain the asparagus, rinse it under cool water and toss it on salads like this. The fresh sweetness really shines through, as I eat one spear, and then another. Sometimes I’ll melt a little butter in the same frying pan and add the blanched asparagus. Season with salt and pepper and serve it with fried eggs and hot, buttered toast. Or if I’m feeling particularly gluttonous, I’ll whip up a batch of blender Hollandaise and drizzle it over the steamed asparagus. I eat it with my fingers and sigh heavily with happiness. Asparagus is also lovely roasted, wrapped in bacon, puréed in soup, and grilled on the barbeque. So many options for this verdant vegetable!
These warm, spring days call for light and fresh meals, and I love to incorporate healthy twists whenever possible. Inspired by the loaf of country white bread sitting on my counter, and some leftover canned white beans chilling in my fridge, I had an instant craving for panzanella salad. I know the creamy white beans will not only add loads of nutrition, but they’ll also make this salad more of a substantial meal which will ultimately be more satisfying to everyone gathered around my table. White beans are so versatile and nutritious, they're one of the best things to have stocked in the pantry. Protein-packed and high in fibre, beans can be used in all sorts of recipes for dips and spreads, stews and chili, salads and pasta, heck even smoothies and brownies! Ontario is a hub of bean production in Canada, with over 1200 farmers growing eight types of beans. Most of these (80-90%) will be exported around the world. Beans are super rich in a variety of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, and they're inexpensive to buy. While the world slowly reopens in the midst of a pandemic, it's important to me that I continue to eat nutritious, delicious meals and watch the grocery budget. Beans check all of the boxes. And they taste so good!
Panzanella is a classic Mediterranean bread salad flavoured with seasonal vegetables. The root of the Latin word for "bread"—panis— is right there in the name. Bread has been a staple food in the Mediterranean region for millennia, and that ancient bread didn't have preservatives, which meant that cooks had to find creative ways to use it up - waste not, want not and all that good stuff. Dishes like panzanella and gazpacho (bread soup) were the result. The cool thing about panzanella is that you can add whatever vegetables you like to it, depending on the season. In the summer, I go hard on tomatoes and basil. Sometimes I’ll grill peppers, zucchini and eggplant and toss them in as well. But right here, right now, I’m all about the asparagus, so I roasted some of that and added it to the cubed bread I toasted with olive oil. Tomatoes, cucumbers and the creamy white beans were tossed in as well as crumbled feta and whatever fresh herbs I have about. In this case it was fresh dill, but basil and parsley would also be fantastic. The vinaigrette is a simple concoction of olive oil, red wine vinegar, mustard, maple, and garlic. Just pour it over the salad and let it stand for at least 5 minutes to soften the bread and to marry the flavours. Feel free to substitute whatever vegetables you like as they come into season - fresh, green peas and blanched beans, arugula, chard and spinach, radishes and radicchio. It’s only just beginning. And I couldn’t be happier.
White Bean Panzanella Salad
4 cups cubed day-old country white, French or ciabatta bread
3 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 bunch asparagus (about 1/2 lb) ends trimmed, chopped into 2-inch pieces
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
2 cups halved cherry tomatoes
1 long English cucumber, chopped
1 1/2 cups cooked white beans
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs such as dill, basil, or parsley
6 Tbsp canola oil or olive oil
3 Tbsp red or white wine vinegar
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp maple syrup
salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 375F. Toss the bread, olive oil, salt, and pepper together in a large bowl. Spread on a parchment-lined baking sheet and toast 8-10 minutes, turning once or twice, until the croutons are golden and crisp. Remove from the oven and let cool.
2. Toss the asparagus, olive oil, salt, and pepper in the same bowl used for the bread and spread on another baking sheet. Roast for about 8-10 minutes, until tender. Remove from the oven and let cool.
3. In a large bowl, stir together the toasted bread, chopped asparagus, tomatoes, cucumber, white beans, feta, and herbs. Pour the dressing over top and gently toss. Let the salad stand for 5 minutes before serving. Adjust the seasonings with more salt and pepper if need be. Makes 4-6 servings.