A recipe for salad with asparagus and white beans is topped with crispy cheddar

Fresh asparagus with white beans and crispy cheddar

Total time:35 min

Servings:2 to 3

Total time:35 min

Servings:2 to 3

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If you’ve eaten at a small-plate restaurant in the last decade or two, you may have noticed something: With the good ones, there are plenty of vegetables. In fact, I have long said that the trend helped break the chef’s protein-in-the-center-of-the-plate habit, resulting in creative combinations of ingredients – and many more options for vegetarian and vegan diners.

The same phenomenon is at stake, for home cooks this time, in Lukas Volger’s new book, “Snacks for Dinner.” Volger was inspired to write it after a friend made lunch for him and his husband in California, where they broke up a tour, eating one restaurant meal after another, and serving them a seemingly effortless and informal selection of small dishes – a tabbouleh salad from a local producer, fresh carrots, dips, biscuits and more – it became their favorite meal of the trip.

This dining style is of course prevalent in many cultures, from Greek mezze and Korean banchan to the southern moaning board. And as Volger puts it, it’s an ideal way to satisfy plant-based eaters. “You can just get all these different vegetable preparations,” he told me in a Zoom call from his home in Brooklyn. “As a vegetarian, that’s what you’re actually excited about eating.”

One of Volger’s previous books is “Bowls”, and I could not help but think of the connection between a modern cereal bowl with its many components and the snack-for-dinner approach with its many plates. In either case, the dishes – or meals – may seem intimidating if you start from scratch, but if you get used to doing things in advance and are not afraid to rely on quality items, putting together could not be faster. “I think of snacks for dinner as a dish for the dinner table,” he said. “All of these components can come together, and there’s a degree of being able to customize what’s going on your plate – or in your bowl.”

Get started with this bunch of asparagus recipes and tips

I expect to cook through Volger’s book, and put a selection of dishes like mixed mushroom pie, Brussels sprouts, nut-and-seed biscuits and cool tofu strips out to friends. But the first thing I made for myself and my husband is this salad with asparagus and white bean, which beautifully combines the fresh ingredients of the season, a pantry and a special touch. The asparagus, when fresh from the farmers market, can remain raw, as can watercress. The beans can come from a can – or your fridge or freezer if you cooked them from dried and have them tucked away.

The special touch is a cheddar frico, a flavorful crisp, which you make by cooking grated cheese until the oil separates and it browns slightly, and magically hardens into a slice while it cools. I had previously only made it from Parmesan or Pecorino and made it in the oven, where I put the grated cheese in small piles that turn into crispy circles, perfect for putting on soup. (If you shape them into a cup while they are still hot, they become a medium for portions the size of spreads, dressed vegetables, or chunks of something else you like.) In this recipe, you make the frico in one. large circle in a nonstick pan and use sharp cheddar, sprinkled with freshly ground black pepper, to make a sour, delicious, crispy crouton for the fresh vegetable salad.

Whenever possible, I like to offer readers a vegan option. But I was skeptical about whether one could make a frico with vegan cheese strips, which usually contain starch, and which I doubted would allow for the oil separation required for the cheese to dry out, fry and crisp. Sure enough, the first time I tried it, the vegan strips were left untouched – literally – by the heat of the frying pan. But all I had to do was drip a few tablespoons of oil over the slices, which melted, and then pour off excess oil when the cheese browned.

The result: a vegan frico with all the lacy texture of the dairy. I tossed asparagus, beans and watercress in a lemon dressing, broke the frico on top and served it to my husband with biscuits and hummus next to it. It tasted exactly what I wanted to eat, and it had all the makings of a seemingly effortless snack-to-dinner party.

Fresh asparagus with white beans and crispy cheddar

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Storage notes: Refrigerate for up to 5 days, save the salad (preferably without dressing) and the frico separately so that it all remains crispy.

  • 1 cup (4 ounces) coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese (can replace vegan cheddar cheese strips plus 2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil; see NOTE)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon peel
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon honey or agave nectar, plus more to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste
  • 8 ounce asparagus, trimmed and cut into thin slices on a diagonal
  • One (14.5 ounce) can of cannellini without added salt or other white beans, drained and rinsed or 1 1/2 cups cooked
  • 1 cup (1 1/2 ounces) watercress twigs or baby arugula

Heat a medium nonstick pan over medium heat. Sprinkle the cheese over the entire surface in an even layer, and season with a few grinders of black pepper. Let the cheese melt and bubble while the oils separate from the solids and the cheese gets a little darker to a light brown color, 4 to 6 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the cheese cool for a few minutes until crispy. Use a thin spatula to loosen it from the pan, transfer it to a plate and let it cool completely. Break into pieces.

In a small bowl, whisk together oil, lemon zest and juice, honey or agave and salt. Taste and add more salt and / or honey as needed.

Taste the asparagus: If you work with less fresh asparagus or do not like the taste of raw, heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat until shiny. Add the asparagus and sauté the slices until just tender, 1 to 2 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine asparagus, beans and watercress or arugula. Turn the dressing into fur. Just before serving, top with frico.

NOTE: If you are using vegan cheese after adding pepper, drizzle the 2 tablespoons oil over and around the cheese. It may take a minute or two longer to brown than the dairy cheese, depending on the brand. Cook until medium-dark brown, then pour off excess oil before allowing to cool.

Per serving (1 2/3 cups), based on 3

Calories: 417; Total fat: 26 g; Saturated fat: 10 g; Cholesterol: 40 mg; Sodium: 646 mg; Carbohydrates: 30 g; Dietary fiber: 7 g; Sugar: 4 g; Protein: 20 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not replace the advice of a dietitian or nutritionist.

Adapted from “Snacks for dinner” by Lukas Volger (Harper Wave, 2022).

Tested by Joe Yonan; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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