Replace half the basil used in this recipe with mint leaves, if you like; this is a summery affair, intended to coincide with the latter part of asparagus season when the spears are plentiful & cheap. Use any almonds you have in the pesto: flaked, blanched, chopped or whole with skins all work well. Never drain the pasta too thoroughly, as the starch cooking water helps to form a sauce.
Prep time: 10 mins
Cooking time: 20 mins
300g (1 large bunch) asparagus
Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
350g wholemeal dried penne, or other short pasta shape
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 small bunches of basil
Finely grated zest & juice of 1 unwaxed lemon
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
50g vegetarian pasta cheese, finely grated, plus more to serve
400g can of butter or cannellini beans, drained & rinsed
Trim the very ends from each asparagus spear, only removing more if they are woody. Cut off the tips with about a thumb’s length of stalk. Set aside.
Bring a medium saucepan of water to the boil, add the trimmed asparagus stalks (not the tips) with a good seasoning of salt & boil for 5 mins, or until tender. Scoop the stalks out & into a colander with a slotted spoon, leaving the water behind in the pan. Give the stalks a brief rinse under cool water, just to take their temperature down a little, & tip into the bowl of a food processor.
Return the pan of asparagus water to the heat, topping it up of needed. Bring to the boil & add the pasta, cooking according to the packet instructions, or until al dente.
Set a griddle pan over a high heat until smoking, toss the asparagus tips with a little regular olive oil to coat lightly & griddle for 4 mins, turning now & then, until coloured & soft. Set aside in the pan.
Put the garlic, almonds, almost all the basil (reserving a few leaves to serve), a squeeze of lemon juice & the extra virgin olive oil into the food processor with the asparagus stalks & blitz to a rough purée, stopping to scrape down the sides a couple of times. Stir in the lemon zest & cheese. Taste & season, stirring in more lemon juice, if you like.
Drain the pasta – not too well - & return to the hot pan with the beans & asparagus pesto. Warm through very gently, then divide between warmed bowls or plates with the griddled asparagus tips, the reserved basil leaves & more cheese.