PHOTOGRAPHS BY PENNY DE LOS SANTOS
Fresh green asparagus is a luxurious harbinger of spring, most welcome after months of cabbage, squash and potatoes. By April, in most parts of the country, spring has arrived at last.
These days, though, asparagus is available in supermarkets year-round, shipped from Peru or Mexico. Does that matter? If you are a seasonal cook, it does. And I am a seasonal cook.
Cooking seasonally means waiting until a particular food is ripe in your region. It's about the joy of anticipation. There's a palpable thrill when spring produce finally comes to market, especially when it's asparagus. But then, I have been called fanatical as far as asparagus is concerned.
When I was growing up in the Midwest, asparagus was never on the menu at our house. The only fresh vegetables I can recall were the ones we had in summer: green beans, tomatoes, corn and the odd cucumber or radish. The rest of the year, we had handy frozen vegetables that went straight from freezer to saucepan.
After I left home, one of my first cooking mentors introduced me to the wild asparagus that popped up in the moist soil near an irrigation ditch on a remote California ranch. It was a small patch, but each day we could harvest a dozen spears, which we boiled quickly in salted water, doused with butter and ate with our fingers. It was insanely good. Such sweetness
That's what I aim for when buying local asparagus. Look for smooth, shiny spears with tightly closed tips. Cook them briefly to keep them bright green, and serve them with your choice of sauce. Melted butter, vinaigrette, homemade mayonnaise or extra-virgin olive oil and lemon are good options.
Still, asparagus season lasts several weeks, and sometimes plain but perfect doesn't fit the bill. Then it's time to consider roasting or grilling, or spaghetti with asparagus, prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Assertive seasoning complements asparagus, too. This recipe I designed veers Chinese, for a quick stir-fry laden with chilies, ginger, garlic and sesame. Far from overwhelming the asparagus, the spicy contrasting flavors pleasantly accentuate the vegetable's sweetness. In the wok, as in life, opposites often attract.
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Spicy Asparagus Stir-Fry
- 1 1/2 pounds pencil-thin or medium asparagus
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1 teaspoon grated or minced
- 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
- 1 serrano or jalapeño chili,
- finely chopped (seeds removed if less heat desired)
- 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
- 3 scallions, slivered
- 1 (or 2) red Fresno chilies, thinly sliced into rings
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
- Handful of cilantro sprigs
- Snap off tough bottom ends of asparagus and discard. Cut spears into 2-inch pieces (halve thicker pieces lengthwise).
- Set wok or wide skillet over medium-high heat and add vegetable oil. When oil is hot, add asparagus and toss well to coat.
- Season well with salt and pepper and stir-fry for 1 minute or so, then add garlic, ginger and serrano chili.
- Continue stir-frying for another minute, until asparagus is cooked but still firm and bright green.
- Transfer cooked asparagus to platter. Next, drizzle with sesame oil.
- Sprinkle with scallions, red Fresno chili rings and sesame seeds. Garnish with cilantro sprigs and serve.
Nutrients per serving: 120 calories, 3g protein, 7g carbohydrates, 3g fiber, 10g fat, 0mg cholesterol, 6mg sodium
Chef David Tanis, 66, is a columnist for the New York Times. His latest cookbook is David Tanis Market Cooking, from which this recipe is adapted.