"If asparagus were a person in my life," says chef Linton Hopkins, "it'd have to be a beloved aunt." That's how much the James Beard Award-winning chef of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch in Atlanta looks forward to the annual visit of peak-season asparagus, and he accordingly shows it the utmost affection and respect. Hopkins stresses the importance of keeping things simple: Asparagus doesn't need a lot of embellishment for its uniquely verdant flavor to shine.

For this salad, Hopkins gives the asparagus a quick sear in a cast-iron skillet to put a little flavorful char on the stalks. A wine-spiked citrus vinaigrette contributes bright, zingy flavor, while creamy goat cheese and toasted pecans add richness and satisfying crunch. Try his original version of the dish in May at Restaurant Eugene.

Skillet Asparagus Salad with Goat CheeseHands-on: 25 min. Total: 25 min.Blanching the citrus rind mellows its flavor and tames bitterness.

1 teaspoon olive oil1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper1/8 teaspoon salt1 1/2 pounds asparagus spears, trimmed (about 30 medium spears)1 cup water2 teaspoons julienne-cut orange rind1 teaspoon julienne-cut lemon rind1/4 cup fresh orange juice1 teaspoon sugar1 tablespoon dry white wine1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper1/8 teaspoon salt5 teaspoons olive oil2 cups mixed baby salad greens2 ounces goat cheese, crumbled (about ½ cup)3 tablespoons chopped pecans, toasted1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1. Combine first 4 ingredients in a large bowl; toss to coat. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add one-third of asparagus mixture; cook 4 minutes or until lightly charred and crisp-tender, stirring occasionally. Remove from pan; set aside. Repeat procedure twice with the remaining asparagus mixture.2. Place 1 cup water in a microwave-safe measuring cup. Microwave at HIGH 2 minutes or until water just boils. Add orange rind; let stand 20 seconds. Drain, reserving rind. Repeat procedure with lemon rind.

3. Combine orange rind, orange juice, and sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook until juice mixture measures about 3 tablespoons (about 5 minutes). Combine wine, lemon juice, mustard, ¼ teaspoon pepper, and 1/8 teaspoon salt in a medium bowl; stir with a whisk. Gradually add 5 teaspoons oil, stirring constantly with a whisk. Stir in orange juice mixture.

4. Place 1/3 cup greens on each of 6 plates. Divide asparagus evenly among salads. Top evenly with cheese, pecans, and tarragon. Stir lemon rind and parsley into orange juice mixture; drizzle dressing over salads.

SERVES 6CALORIES 117; FAT 8.4g (sat 2.2g, mono 4.6g, poly 1.2g); PROTEIN 5g; CARB 7g; FIBER 3g; CHOL 4mg; IRON 3mg; SODIUM 152mg; CALC 57mg