Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Recipe Revisit: Asparagus and Pasta with Balsamic-Tarragon Sauce

It’s time to revisit an old recipe from The Messy Apron Archives: Asparagus and Pasta with Balsamic-Tarragon Sauce and Bacon. This one goes way back to the first year these pages were online; from the second month, in fact. It’s embarrassing to sneak a peek at some of those old posts (especially the sad photographs!), but this is really a great recipe. I should be making it at least once a year during local asparagus season, but, and this is even sadder than those old photos, I don’t think I’ve made it since I put up that post all those years ago.

This is quite a simple dish, as most of my weeknight suppers tend to be these days. Onions and asparagus get sautéed in bacon drippings and then a swim in a sauce of balsamic vinegar and sugar. This sauce gets reduced even as it soaks into the asparagus, becoming richer and more complex, not to mention sweeter. A good dose of fresh tarragon adds some delicious anise notes, and it all gets tossed with pasta, pecans, and crisp bacon.

The inspiration recipe that I tinkered with to produce the original post was a side dish without the noodles and less sauce. I just increased the sauce volume and plumped it up to a main dish with the pasta. I had originally made it with short pasta, but, I tried it with linguine in this recipe revisit with excellent results, which leads me to conclude that pasta of any shape would be just great, as would whole grain noodles.

I also added Pernod to the dish all those years ago, but in this retest, I went without it and found that it’s not necessary. It probably just overpowers the more subtle flavor of the tarragon. It probably also helped to make the sauce especially sweet, since I wrote a lot in that old post about how sweet the dish was, but I did not find it especially sweet without the Pernod.

Overall, I prefer the ever-so-slightly altered version of this recipe that I have below. It’s more inclusive when it comes to pasta shape, and is therefore easier to pull off with what’s in the pantry. The Pernod can go, but if you can’t get your hands on some good fresh tarragon (I grow it in a pot on my back porch), perhaps a teaspoon or two of some kind of anise-flavored liqueur can help you get that particularly fitting flavor kick.

The only additional alteration I might try is to leave out the bacon and make this dish vegetarian (actually, it would even be vegan without the bacon if you used vegan pasta). The onions and asparagus could be sautéed in olive oil instead of the bacon fat, which would change the flavor, but might still be pretty darn good. Bacon does give everything a certain something special, but if you’re not into pork, you should still be able to have lots of delicious happiness with asparagus and tarragon and balsamic vinegar all by their flavorful selves.

Asparagus and Pasta with Balsamic-Tarragon Sauce and Bacon
If you don’t have tarragon available, you could replace it with thyme or basil, or with 1-2 teaspoons of an anise-flavored liqueur, such as Pernod.

3 strips thick-cut bacon
8 ounces any pasta, short or long cut
½ cup thinly sliced onion
1 pound asparagus, tough ends removed and cut into 1-inch pieces
½ cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
¼ teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt (or more, to taste)
A few grinds of black pepper (to taste)
½ cup toasted chopped pecans

1. Cook the bacon in a large saute pan until crisp. Remove the bacon and drain on a paper towel-lined plate. Remove all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon drippings from the pan. Chop the bacon into small pieces when cool.

2. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until it is done as you like it. Drain the pasta. Reserve about ½ cup of the pasta cooking water to have on hand in case you need more moisture at the end of cooking the dish.

3. Return the reserved bacon drippings to medium heat (in the same pan). Add the onion and ¼ teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally for 4 minutes, or until the onion starts to brown. Add the asparagus and sauté 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.

4. Add the balsamic vinegar and sugar, stirring well to dissolve the sugar. Cook several minutes until the vinegar has reduced by about half and has become slightly thicker and syrupy.

5. Add the tarragon and pepper. Cook about 1 minute. Add the pasta and toss well. If the pasta appears too dry, add some of the reserved pasta-cooking water. Stir in the chopped bacon and pecans.

Makes about 4 servings

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