Spring Panzanella: Here's a Way to Get Your Asparagus Fix

Asparagus makes me smile. For starters, being one of the first vegetables to show up after a long, dark winter, asparagus is the courageous harbinger of spring – more so than the robin, who I’ve seen pecking around in the snow with nary a clue as to just how many weeks away spring really is. And although I’ve never eaten a robin, something tells me it isn't nearly as tasty as fresh asparagus.

I also happen to find the shape of asparagus quite fetching. They look like little soldiers. The upright citizens of the vegetable world, they have good posture and an optimistic demeanor - they seem to be pointing their heads toward the sun, cheering "Up! Up! Up!"

Even though there is nothing wrong with a simple preparation, I decided to troll around the interwebs for an interesting way to cook these charming little friends. When I came upon this recipe for "Spring Panzanella," my heart did a little jump. Panzanella is a bread salad and it reminds me of the hottest, juiciest days of summer. Remember those endlessly long golden days when tomatoes are at their most delicious and bodacious? Picture it with me: You’re in tomato heaven, wallowing in a veritable glut of tomatoes. You’re literally gobbling them up, day after day, prepared every which way and no way at all, with the juices running down your face when you stop chewing for a moment to ponder what other way there may be to eat MORE tomatoes and the answer pops up above your head like a loaf of bread-shaped light bulb. Panzanella! Its genius lies in the fact that the chunks of bread in this hearty but cool salad soak up the tomato juices and any other deliciousness you throw in. Plus it has the added benefit of making you feel proud and thrifty for using up stale bread. (Although I must confess, I’ve never made panzanella with old bread. Bread just doesn’t seem to hang around these parts long enough to get old, so when I think of it, I buy a boule, make croutons, and just pretend I’m a thrifty, old Italian grandma.

It never occurred to me that this quintessential summer salad could be adopted by spring, but it can and it should. As long as I’m confessing things, now would probably be a good time for me to tell you, dear SGT readers, that I’m no good at following recipes. Despite best intentions, I always add or subtract something, sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident. I can’t seem to help myself. The recipe below is adapted from the one I happily stumbled upon over at my trusty Smitten Kitchen. I thought it needed more acid so I increased the lemon and vinegar to the amounts I’ve indicated. I had some parsley cooling its heels in the fridge, so I threw some of that into the vinaigrette too. I couldn’t be bothered to remove the crust from the bread either. And for my final recipe violation I added PANCETTA!!! Why not? The salty little bits played beautifully against the cool, herby, asparagus and the sweet, soft leeks. It wasn’t until later that I realized I had completely forgotten the white beans. I think they would be really nice in this dish, so I will definitely try to remember them next time.

Now is the time to eat lots and lots of asparagus because they are truly at their most delicious. If you find yourself lolling at your kitchen table, contemplating the greening of our Minnesota landscape while munching on a pile of asparagus spears, remember that floating light bulb loaf and give this recipe a try. Happy spring!

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RECIPE for Spring Panzanella (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

For the croutons: 1/4 cup olive oil; 
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped; 
6 cups day-old bread, cubed; 
6 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan, plus more for garnish; 
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the vinaigrette: 1/2 a red onion, finely diced; 
3 tablespoons champagne or white wine vinegar; 
Juice of one lemon;
1/4 cup olive oil;
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard; 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

For the salad: 4 large leeks; 
2 teaspoons salt; 
1 pound asparagus; 
1 19-ounce can of white beans, rinsed and drained or 1 1/2 cups cooked white beans; ½ inch thick slice of pancetta, chopped into small cubes, cooked and drained on a paper towel

  • Preheat oven to 400°F.

  • Mix the bread cubes with the garlic, olive oil, Parmesan, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Toss to coat well.

  • Transfer bread to a baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake, stirring once or twice, until the croutons are crisp and lightly colored on the outside but still soft within, about 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside and let cool.

  • Mix the red onion with the vinegar and lemon juice in a small bowl and set aside for a few minutes before whisking in the remaining vinaigrette ingredients: olive oil and dijon. Set aside.

  • Cut off dark green tops of leeks and trim root ends. Halve each leek lengthwise to within two inches of root end. Rinse well under cold running water to wash away sand. Cover leeks with cold water in a 12-inch heavy skillet. Add salt and simmer leeks, uncovered, until tender, 15 to 20 minutes.

  • Without draining the cooking water (you will reuse it for the asparagus), transfer leeks to a bowl of ice and cold water to stop cooking, then pat the leeks dry with paper towels. Break off tough ends of asparagus and cook it in the boiling water until crisp-tender, no more than three minutes if they’re pencil-thin, more if your asparagus is thicker. Transfer it to another bowl of ice water, drain and pat dry.

  • Cut the leeks and the asparagus each into one-inch segments. (The leeks will be especially slippery and prone to separating; so hold firm and use a sharp knife!) Place pieces of leeks and asparagus in a large bowl and mix in beans and cooled croutons. Season with salt and pepper. Pour vinaigrette over and toss well. Sprinkle with a little Parmesan.

Gabriela Lambert is a former lawyer who, after 10 years of practice, decided to stay home with her three kids and pursue a life of leisure. Given the choice between salty and sweet, Gabriela will hit the salty every time. Given the choice between pig and cow, she will clutch her chest and whimper that it’s like asking her to pick her favorite child. On her birthday, she is most likely to choose a trip to the farmers' market with her family, but that’s one of her favorite things to do on any given day. In addition to minding her brood, she spends her time practicing yoga, driving around in her minivan, and blogging at Her last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was Is Packing My Kids Lunches a Privilege or a Pain in the Apple?