To make the balsamic vinaigrette, in a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, and salt and pepper to taste (I like 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper). Allow the flavors to blend at room temperature while preparing the salad.
To a cold skillet, add bacon slices in a single layer (touching is okay but you don't want them overlapping too much). Turn heat to medium and cook bacon until brown on one side and curling, about 5 minutes (7 minutes for thick-cut bacon).
Flip bacon and continue to cook until the second side is browned, about 3 to 5 minutes longer depending on your desired crispness. Drain on paper towels and chop.
While the bacon is cooking, fill a large bowl with water and ice. In a large saucepan or stockpot, bring 1 inch water and 1 teaspoon salt to boil. Add asparagus, cover, and boil until bright green and crisp-tender, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from boiling water and plunge into ice bath to stop the cooking. When completely cool, drain well and pat try. Cut into 1-inch pieces.
In a large bowl, combine asparagus, red onion, red pepper, and cranberries. Drizzle with balsamic vinaigrette and toss to coat. Cover and chill until serving time. Just before serving, stir in almonds and bacon.
Bacon: To cook bacon in the oven, arrange it in a single layer on a rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes in a 400-degree oven. 1/4 cup store-bought cooked bacon may be substituted for the 4 slices raw bacon. Do not substitute bacon bits (the crunchy salad topping) which are often made of soy.
Asparagus: Asparagus should be bright green with a slight purple hue at the tips. Choose asparagus stalks that are smooth, firm, and straight. Pass up any that have wrinkled stalks or dark, slimy tips.
Yield: This recipe makes 6 servings.
Make ahead: The vinaigrette can be made up to 4 days in advance. All vegetables and the bacon can be prepared a day in advance. The salad can be assembled, dressed, and refrigerated up to 2 hours in advance (hold back the almonds and bacon and add just before serving).
Raw asparagus: If you have the patience, you can shave the asparagus into long, thin strips using a vegetable peeler and transfer to a large bowl.