Asparagus pesto peps up a plate of pasta

Kate Lawson
The Detroit News

If we don't have asparagus for dinner at least twice a week, then something's wrong. It's nutritious, flavorful, one of Michigan's first signs of spring, and the Lawsons' favorite vegetable.

Michigan is the second largest producer of asparagus in the nation (producing just under 21 million pounds) and is the state's first green vegetable harvested each year. And while I've been placating our asparagus desires with imports, local asparagus stalks are finally making their way to farm stands and produce aisles. The harvest typically lasts six to seven weeks with May being the center of it all — in fact this is officially Michigan Asparagus Month — so we still have a while to enjoy it.

So far, I've roasted it, steamed it, fried it, tafolded it into omelets and served it with proscuitto and blue cheese in a pasta dish. Then, last week, I made asparagus pesto and I've decided that that's my new favorite way to enjoy it. A bit of baby spinach, garlic, fresh lemon, pine nuts and cheese complements the flavor and makes for a bright green, lovely sauce. You can vary the pasta shapes and serve it as a main course or as a side. The only thing you can't do is enjoy the dish in August, so you'd better get busy.

Asparagus Pesto with Pasta

Adapted from

1 bunch asparagus spears (about 1 pound, preferably Michigan), trimmed of tough ends and halved crosswise

3 handfuls baby spinach leaves

2 cloves garlic, peeled

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for topping

1 cup pine nuts

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for topping

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt

8 ounces of dried pasta or 12 ounces of fresh linguini, fettuccine or spaghetti

Bring 2 pots of water to a rolling boil, one large for the pasta and one medium sized for the asparagus.

While the water is heating, put the pine nuts in a single layer in a large skillet. Heat on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and lightly browned. Remove pine nuts from pan and set aside. You will use 3/4 cup of the pine nuts for the pesto paste and 1/4 cup to mix in whole.

Salt the asparagus water and drop the spears into the pan. Cook for only 2 or 3 minutes, until the spears are bright green and barely tender. Remove to an ice water bath to stop the cooking. Cut the tips off, and set aside, several of the asparagus (diagonal cut about an inch from the end) to use for garnish. Reserve the water.

Add the asparagus stalks, spinach, garlic, Parmesan, and 3/4 cup of the pine nuts to a food processor. Purée and, with the motor running, drizzle in the 1/4 cup of olive oil until a paste forms. If too thick, thin it with a bit of the cooking water. Add the lemon juice and salt, taste and adjust seasoning.

Add the pasta to the asparagus water, salt well and cook the pasta until just tender, according to directions on the package. Check the directions on the pasta package. You'll need more time for dried pasta and less for fresh. Drain and toss immediately with 1 cup of the asparagus pesto.

Serve sprinkled with the remaining 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts, a dusting of Parmesan, and a light drizzle of olive oil and reserved asparagus tips. Serves 4.

Per serving: 630 calories; 38 g fat (8 g saturated fat; 54 percent calories from fat); 50 g carbohydrates; 4 g sugar; 16 mg cholesterol; 685 mg sodium; 26 g protein; 5 g fiber.

Pesto originates from the Genoese word pesta, which means to pound or crush. Although it's most often associated with basil, other fresh, green vegetables also work well.