Rather than steaming the asparagus, for a smoky grilled flavor, cook the asparagus on an outdoor grill. And, if your time is limited, you can toss the salad with bottled Creamy Italian Dressing rather than making the dressing from scratch.
For the salad
8 ounces penne
3 cups asparagus diagonally cut into 3-inch-long pieces.
For the Creamy Italian Dressing
1/3 cup cottage cheese
1/3 cup plain yogurt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons minced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
½ teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
To complete the recipe
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
1 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, coarsely shredded
Garnish (optional): sprigs of fresh basil or flat-leaf parsley
Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add salt, then the penne. When the water returns to a boil, stir occasionally to separate the pasta. Reduce the heat to medium-high and cook for about 12 to 14 minutes, or according to package instructions, until al dente.
While the penne is cooking, put the asparagus into a medium microwave-proof dish; add about 1/4 cup water. Cover and microwave on high for about 4 minutes, or until crisp-tender. (Or cook the asparagus for about 4 minutes in a stovetop steamer.) Drain and rinse well in cold water, then drain again.
To prepare the dressing: Process the cottage cheese, yogurt, oil, onion, garlic, lemon juice, and mustard in a blender until smooth and creamy. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
When the pasta is done, drain and rinse well in cold water, then drain again.
Transfer the pasta to a large bowl. Add the asparagus and the remaining salad ingredients; toss. Add the dressing and toss again. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
This salad will keep for up to 3 days in a covered container in the refrigerator. (It's best to refrigerate the dressing and salad separately; toss together up to 1 hour before serving.
Paulette Mitchell, a culinary instructor, television personality, spokesperson, freelance food writer, and the award-winning author of 13 cookbooks, is known internationally for her quick-to-prepare recipes with gourmet flair. Paulette's most recently published cookbook is "The Complete 15-Minute Gourmet: Creative Cuisine Made Fast and Fresh." She is also the author of "A Beautiful Bowl of Soup" and "The Spirited Vegetarian," which was voted "Best Book in the World on Cooking with Wine" at the 2005 Gourmand World Media Awards. Paulette says that international travel is her favorite source of culinary inspiration.