Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Famous Spring Asparagus

It’s nearly the end of May, and the asparagus has been at the roadside—and in my kitchen—for several weeks, so before it disappears, I’d better acknowledge the gift. Here in Little Compton, we live in asparagus heaven—sandy soil near the sea—and after its first appearance I’m likely to take it for granted. This really isn’t fair, as fresh-cut asparagus is special in the same way that fresh-picked corn or a field tomato is. Its chemical make-up changes soon after harvesting, so you are eating quite a different product when asparagus is new and local than when you purchase it at a market. It is well worth a Sunday drive to seek out, if that’s what it takes. And of course, Sunday drives are nice.

Asparagus is one of the most nutrient-packed vegetables, and a good source of fiber, which is stored in the skin. Consequently, the larger the asparagus spear, the more tender; many people prefer fat asparagus for this reason. Aesthetically, I like them smaller, and if they are really, really fresh, I notice no difference in tenderness. I peel my asparagus below the belt (you don’t need to), so that helps too.

The most common way to cook asparagus is to blanch it in boiling water until tender when tested with the point of a paring knife, 3-5 minutes depending on size, possibly longer for the really fat (and really old) ones. The stand-up method, in which asparagus is tied and cooked in a tall pot to allow the tips to steam, is theoretically sound but silly, as befitting its name. If you must cook it in water—and only if you must—use a small frying pan in which you can lay the asparagus in a single layer, like little people floating on their backs in a pool, with the their heads out. Use only enough water to cover the stems, and cook at a gentle bubble for a few minutes until tender.

But why, really, would you want to cook asparagus in water unless you were doing something very delicate with it, like serving it with a mousseline sauce? (Which you might, but how often?) It gets cold too fast. It leaches out the flavor, and becomes bland. And (although you should never, ever do this), it turns a dour color if covered with a lid or cooked too long. So don’t steam, and don’t boil. Fancy sauce or to make soup from left-over stems the two permissible exceptions, and even then. . . .

I prefer to grill, stir-fry, or roast; roasting, in fact, is my alternative to blanching for a basic cooked asparagus that can be used for pretty much anything. To cook asparagus by any method, bend it gently so that the woody bottoms snap off, then trim the ragged ends with a sharp knife so they look nice. Swish them in a basin of water to remove any lingering sand, and peel the lower parts if you like; dry between paper towels. For roasting, put a few teaspoons of olive oil and some salt and pepper in an oven-proof shallow dish large enough to hold your asparagus in a single layer (a pie plate works if nothing else is handy), drop in your same-sized spears, roll them around with your hands to coat, and pop into a 400 F oven. Roast until just piercable or, if you want them really charred, longer: 5-10 minutes. Use in any preparation, or sprinkle with fresh parmesan and a little lemon or balsamic vinegar and serve. A few sprinkled herbs for the last few minutes of cooking are nice, too.

To grill, either over charcoal or on an ungreased pan, have your fire hot. Brush each spear lightly with olive oil and throw it down. Cook quickly, turning, two or three minutes. In the photo below, the asparagus was pan-grilled, very lightly dressed with leftover LMC Dressing (last week’s post), and served with a very traditional polonaise of finely chopped hard-cooked egg, parsley, salt, pepper, and a little lemon zest (you can add buttered bread crumbs, too, but I skipped them). This was excellent and different from the usual asparagus polonaise made with blanched spears. You could use any vinaigrette, and any cooking method; serve warm or at room temperature. Slightly chilled is all right, too, but please, not cold.

Asparagus has a particular affinity with Asian flavors, although I don’t think it is a common vegetable in that part of the world. In the recipe below, the asparagus is quickly stir-fried with Chinese seasonings. It is an adaptation and combination of two recipes for dry-fried green beans in one of Fuschia Dunlop’s wonderful Chinese cookbooks. It’s fast and is good on its own or as a side dish for grilled lamb, chicken, or scallops.

Ah, but what about the wine, you’re thinking. Asparagus is the worst possible food to pair with wine, right? Well, it depends. This newborn asparagus has none of that odd grassy, sometimes even metallic, off-taste of the long-ago-picked storebought. It’s true that all asparagus contains sulfurous compounds that do funny things—particularly when overcooked or otherwise aged beyond recognition. But buy it fresh and cook it right and you can minimize its negative transformations, with or without wine. Probably you should avoid already grassy tasting whites, and anything too oaky or tannic. Light, crisp Italian whites are fine, and I’d go that route with plain, traditionally sauced asparagus, and with Asian-inspired dishes (beer is nice, too), but my principle recommendation would be a rosé. Granted, rosé is almost always my preference for flavorful warm-weather food, and for champagne. But really, it’s one of the best choices here, excellent with the polonaise. Look for some of the great inexpensive choices coming out of Portugal these days.

Double dry-fried Asparagus

1 bunch asparagus, about 1 lb, sliced at a sharp angle into 2” pieces
2 T peanut oil
3 scallions, white parts only, ditto
4 -6 dried small hot dried chiles, snipped in little pieces (discard the seeds)
½ tea Sichuan pepper (see Note)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 piece peeled fresh ginger, about the size of a walnut, thinly sliced and then cut into little matchsticks

2 tea Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
2 tea soy sauce
1 tea sesame oil

Heat a scant 2 T of oil in a wok or skillet to medium hot Add the sliced asparagus and stir fry quickly, 2 or 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the chiles and the pepper and stir fry until fragrant, then add the ginger, garlic, and scallions and stir fry an additional minute, ‘til soft and fragrant. Put the asparagus back in the pan, splash with the wine and soy sauce, toss, and remove from the heat. Add the sesame oil and stir. Serve.

Note: You can buy Sichuan peppercorns at your local Chinese grocery or from Penzey’s. Grind in a mortar or spice mill, or put some in a small zip-lock bag and pound.

1 comment:

Francesca Bellini said...

Thanks so much for this wonderful reminder. There's no fresh asparagus near my town, but if there were, I'd go picking and then roasting. Looking forward to future posts.

Francesca