It all started with preserved Meyer lemons. I tried making them a couple years ago, and I was smitten. So enchanting, so unforgettable, like the taste of sunshine and ocean combined. A secret ingredient to bring soups, salads and countless other dishes to life. Alas, that first jar of lemons went way too quickly, swallowed into big bowl of orzo salad that didn’t last through the end of the party. For months afterwards, I scanned the farmer’s markets and grocery stores for Meyer lemons, hoping to re-stock my supply. But the season is fleeting, and I had to wait longingly for spring to arrive again.
Now I know better. When I catch my first glimpse of those deep gold treasures at the farmer’s market in February, I go into full-fledged hoarder mode. I’ve been known to clean out the citrus lady entirely, and shamelessly come back the following week for more. Meyer lemons are wonderful fresh, of course, but preserving them allows me to savor their delightful flavor long after the season has passed. And I’m a sucker for ingredients that have crossover appeal from sweet to savory. Preserved lemons are easy to make. You basically just put them in a jar with salt and lemon juice and let them sit for 30 days. I more or less use this recipe as a guide, except I skip the spices because I prefer to have a more versatile condiment that I can take in various flavor directions depending on the dish I’m using them in. Why should Moroccans have all the fun?
Of course, the hard part is waiting 30 days. I started my first batch of the season in February, and have been religiously shaking the jar in my pantry every day like a good girl, and counting the days. So when the time was finally up, I was chomping at the bit to showcase my finely aged beauties in a dish that would celebrate spring.
That’s when I stumbled onto the idea of a shaved asparagus salad. Another ingredient that’s just starting to make its springtime debut, calling for a play date with my preserved lemons. I took my inspiration for the salad from this lovely Shaved Asparagus & Mint Salad by Meatballs&Milkshakes on Food52, and for the dressing from a recipe for Asparagus & Bulgur with Preserved Lemon Dressing in The Essential New York Times Cookbook by Amanda Hesser. With these two recipes as my jumping off point, I improvised. When I saw watermelon radishes at the store, I couldn’t resist adding them to the mix simply for the joyful contrast of their pink slices against the green shavings of asparagus–this was a salad intended for a ladies’ luncheon after all. Before I knew it, I had a bright confetti of a salad that seemed to be doing a little happy dance that daylight’s savings has finally turned our clocks to the hopeful up-swing leading towards summer.
Shaved Asparagus & Watermelon Radish Salad with Preserved Meyer Lemon Dressing
For the dressing:
1 preserved Meyer lemon
7 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly toasted and ground
freshly ground black pepper
Rinse the preserved lemon with cold water, and the cut it in half (if it’s not already cut into halves or quarters). Chop one half coarsely and place in a blender. Use a spoon to remove the pulp from the remaining half and add only the pulp to the blender, taking care to discard any seeds. Dice the remaining rind into small bits and set aside to garnish the salad. Add the oil and spices to blender and blend until smooth. Taste and add more salt if needed.
For the salad:
1 bunch (about a pound) of very fresh asparagus, the thicker the better
1 small fennel bulb
1 handful fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
2 oz mild goat cheese, crumbled
1 watermelon radish, scrubbed
A few bits of preserved Meyer lemon rind, diced (leftover from dressing–see above)
Cut off the tough ends and the tips of your asparagus stalks at an angle and set the tips aside. If they are big, fat stalks, like mine were, blanch the tips in a pot of salted boiling water for 30 seconds, plunge them into an ice-water bath, drain and set aside. (As promised, here are some more tips I learned at my CIA boot camp: when boiling water for vegetables or pasta, add enough salt until the water is “salty like the sea”. This will add flavor more evenly to the item you’re cooking than if you simply salt the cooked food. Always leave the lid off when you are boiling vegetables, because they release acid as they cook, which can turn them brown. An ice bath is a great way to stop the cooking and keep your veggies al dente until you’re ready to finish your dish. Make sure to drain them immediately after they’ve completely chilled in the ice bath, so they don’t absorb water and get soggy.)
Use a vegetable peeler (working lengthwise from root end to tip end) to create thin strips of asparagus. You’ll have some scraps leftover that are too hard to work with. You can either compost them or save them for a soup, like this one. Place the strips in a bowl. Remove the tough outer layer of fennel bulb and trim off both ends, and use a mandolin to slice thin rounds of fennel, adding them to the bowl with asparagus. Trim the ends of the ends of the radish and slice into thin rounds with the mandolin. Toss radish slices into the bowl, or layer them around the perimeter of your salad plates (see photos). Tear mint leaves and add them to the bowl. Toss salad with dressing. The recipe I’ve listed here will make more dressing than you need for this salad (which is a good thing, because it’s delicious and will keep in your fridge for a week or two). So add dressing to your salad a few spoonfuls at a time, to your taste. Keep in mind that the asparagus will release moisture as it sits, so you’ll want to go pretty light on the dressing. Taste and add salt if needed.
Place salad on plates and top with pine nuts, goat cheese and preserved lemon rind. Enjoy!
Notes from my tasters: The goat cheese added a nice creaminess, but wasn’t entirely necessary given all the other flavors. You could easily skip it and it would still be good. The fennel flavor also got a little lost–you could probably choose fennel or radish (for crunch), but don’t really need both. Don’t forget to taste the asparagus mixture and add salt if needed. I think my final dish could have used a little more acid. A squeeze of lemon (Meyer or regular) would be a nice finishing touch.