- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2005

During one of the hottest spells of summer, I found myself with a small dinner party to host, but I didn’t feel like eating, much less cooking.

The temperature was in the 90s, and the humidity was so heavy that I was continually wiping my brow. Did I mention we didn’t have air conditioning? So I asked myself which dishes would require minimal time in a hot kitchen yet be tempting to guests.

I chose an icy-cold soup as an opener and decided to follow it with a main-course pasta salad served simply with a basket of crusty bread.

A cheese board came next, and for dessert, there was a strawberry icebox cake, purchased at a nearby bakery. Inspired by the unrelenting heat of summer, this meal turned out to be one of the easiest and most delectable I served all season.

A chilled tomato soup got the evening off on a cool note, but an asparagus-and-mushroom pasta salad with a distinctive melding of flavors and textures became the night’s most memorable offering.

Typically, I use bow-tie or penne in pasta salads, but for this one, I cut wide pappardelle noodles into short lengths, then cooked and tossed them in a sherry wine vinaigrette flavored generously with Dijon mustard and chopped shallots.

Cooked asparagus cut in small pieces, sliced mushrooms and chopped hard-cooked eggs were then stirred into the noodles. At serving time, grated Parmesan cheese and minced parsley were added.

The sherry vinegar and the mustard provided slightly tart tones to the salad’s flavor pool, while the cheese delivered a salty accent. The mushrooms and the asparagus, cooked just until tender, offered a barely noticeable crunch that paired well with the smoothness of the pasta and the eggs.

This salad has several advantages for the summer cook. I served it as an entree, but it would work just as well as a side dish accompanied by grilled chicken, shrimp or lamb. There’s no last-minute worry because it can be prepared 11/2 hours in advance, and the recipe, which serves four as a main dish or six as an accompaniment, can be doubled or tripled for a crowd.

Asparagus and mushroom pasta salad

1/4 cup sherry wine vinegar

4 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2/3 cup olive oil

3/4 cup chopped shallots

2 pounds medium asparagus

½ pound pappardelle or fettuccine, preferably fresh rather than dried (see note)

1½ cups (about 4 ounces) sliced mushrooms

2 large hard-cooked eggs, chopped

½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

Whisk together vinegar, mustard, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper and olive oil in a medium nonreactive bowl. Add the shallots. Set vinaigrette aside.

Break off and discard tough ends from asparagus, then cut spears on the diagonal into 1½-inch-long pieces.

Bring 3 quarts water to a boil in a large pot. Add 2 teaspoons salt and the asparagus. Cook until just tender when pierced with a knife, only about 3 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer asparagus to a colander. (Remove the pot of water from heat but save to use for cooking the pasta.) Run cold water over asparagus in colander until it is cool, a minute or two. Remove and pat asparagus dry.

Bring water in which asparagus was cooked to a boil. If using fresh pasta, use scissors to cut strands into 5- to 6-inch long pieces, then add to the water. If using dry pasta, add strands uncut.

Cook pasta until al dente, or just tender to the bite, according to package directions. Drain pasta in colander and rinse lightly under water to prevent sticking. Pat pasta dry and transfer to a large bowl. If using dry pasta, cut strands into 5- to 6-inch pieces. Pour half the vinaigrette over the pasta, and toss to coat well.

In bowl, toss asparagus, mushrooms and hard-cooked eggs with remaining vinaigrette dressing, then stir them into the pasta.

Let pasta salad stand for at least 30 minutes, but not longer than 1½ hours, so that flavors meld. If asparagus is marinated longer, it will gradually start to lose its bright color.

When ready to serve the salad, stir in Parmesan cheese and parsley. Taste salad and season with more salt and pepper as needed. Mound pasta salad on a platter. Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as a side dish.

Note: Pappardelle, extra-wide pasta, looks particularly attractive in this salad, but fettuccine can be substituted.


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