Most people associate asparagus and its fresh, strong, grassy flavor with the onset of spring. But as spring wanes and summer advances, there are still stalks at the market, and they work beautifully in a warm-weather bean salad.
Asparagus takes kindly to gentle pairings, particularly starchy ones (pasta, potatoes, and rice), which tame the pungency of the stalk and add enough bulk to turn a vegetable into a meal. Soft, earthy white beans are a variation on this theme. Here, I have tossed pieces of asparagus and white beans with a garlicky tarragon-lemon dressing.
I have made this salad several times, using freshly cooked dried beans and canned beans. And while I’m usually a fan of the freshly cooked legumes, in this case, it wasn’t a given. The dried cannellini and navy beans I bought at the supermarket cooked up inconsistently, with some beans turning to mush while others remained stubbornly and unappealingly al dente.
Then I tried the recipe with a 10-ounce vacuum-packed bag of $12 heirloom Italian controne beans from a specialty store. These cooked up creamy and evenly and were absolutely terrific with the asparagus. But they did pitch the salad out of the everyday realm.
I am happy to report that when I made this salad with canned Great Northern beans, they turned out beautifully. Maybe they weren’t quite as good as the fancy beans, but they were a whole lot easier to deal with and less expensive, too.
All of this is to say, when it comes to the beans in this recipe, you have options. Use what works for you. Make the salad a few hours before when you want to serve it, if you have the time; this gives the beans a chance to soak up the dressing.
I ate this versatile dish for lunch, for dinner over greens, and as a side dish with roasted chicken. It’s ideal picnic fare, too, since it will keep at room temperature for several hours with no ill effects, which is what you want in a fresh summer salad.
White Bean and Asparagus Salad with Tarragon-Lemon Dressing
8 ounces dried white beans or 2 (15-ounce) cans Great Northern or cannellini beans
2 bay leaves, if using dried beans
1 pound asparagus
½ cup tarragon leaves
1 teaspoon packed finely grated lemon zest
2 garlic cloves, peeled
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 large lemon, juiced, plus more to taste
½ cup olive oil
If using canned beans, drain and rinse. If using dried beans, soak in plenty of water for 6 hours or overnight. Drain beans and transfer to a medium pot. Cover beans by 2 inches with water and add 1½ teaspoons salt and the bay leaves. Simmer until just tender but not at all mushy, about 45 minutes to 1½ hours, depending upon what kind of beans you’re using. Drain.
Break off tough ends of the asparagus. Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil and prepare a bowl with ice and cold water. Blanch trimmed asparagus for 1½ minutes, or until just cooked through but still firm, then plunge them into the ice bath. Let sit for 5 minutes, then drain. Pat dry and slice diagonally into ½-inch pieces.
In a blender or food processor, combine tarragon, lemon zest, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, the black pepper, and the lemon juice, and process until garlic is chopped. Pour in olive oil. Process until mixture is well blended and bright green, about 1 minute.
In a large mixing bowl, gently toss together beans, asparagus, and dressing. Taste and add more lemon juice and salt if needed.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings