Every year as the days get longer and the breeze turns into an invigorating taste of the warm summer to come, I find myself thinking about the first new items that will show up at the green markets. No matter where you live in New York City, you are close to a green market – a huge perk of living here. I wind up popping into Union Square before work or Grand Army Plaza on the weekends to look for new arrivals. First come ramps and spring leeks as March fades out and then towards the end of April, after what seems like an eon of potatoes and turnips, those elusive little green spears start to appear in bundles and baskets soaking in the glory of the spring sun and their own allure as if to say, “Yes, we know you want us, because we’re fresh and fabulous, bitches”. Thick or thin, dark or pale in color but always sweet and snappy, asparagus is the tell-tale sign that the markets are gearing up for the bounty that will spill overs its stalls and tables in the summer months to come. And here’s where I become torn. I have three amazing recipes for asparagus that I love equally and can never decide which one to make first.
– Spicy Stir Fried Asparagus
– Fried Eggs and Asparagus with Parmesan
– Heidi Swansen’s Ten Minute Tasty Asparagus with Brown Rice
These three recipes are all near and dear to my heart. The stir-fried asparagus is a dish that I have been eating since my childhood, a recipe picked up on a school field trip to The House of Rice in Phoenix. My mom, a parent chaperone on that excursion, latched onto this recipe and it became our go-to alternative to greasy Chinese take-out on a regular basis. And you all know that I have a fiendish addiction to anything involving eggs, so possibly the closet thing to perfection I can think to do with asparagus is plop an egg on top of a few beautifully steamed/sautéed/baked/raw stems and then cover them liberally with a perfectly shaved dusting of Parmesan cheese.
But neither of these recipes are ever the go-to winner for the first dish in a very short asparagus season. Maybe this year more than ever, in my inaugural Chocolate and Chiles year, Heidi Swansen’s Tasty Asparagus recipe beats out all others for the recipe I want to try now. Immediately. And eat until all of the asparagus at the markets is overrun by green beans and squash and tomatoes. Swansen’s dish is special to me because it was not only the first dish I ever saw on a food blog and executed (almost immediately, mind you) but it was the first blog post I read. Ever.
Like, ever ever.
Which seems totally and utterly preposterous now that I read 1-5 blog posts A DAY. But back in the dark ages (around 2007) I was just jumping on the blog bandwagon, as were many other people. I remember the whole event surrounding this dish – searching, cooking, and eating – all very clearly. As I said, it was 2007. May to be exact. I was spending a month in Spain drinking cheap red wine and hanging out with Ilana, recovering from five months in India volunteering at Sri Ram Ashram. As you may have heard me say already, while being unmeasurably rewarding, ashram life is hard. You get up early and work all day and try to get a spare moment for yourself every once in a while to brush your teeth but god know when that can ever happen and who would want to really when faces like this exist for the hugging and kissing? I digress…
One particularly challenging part of ashram life is you have very little control of what you eat. Compared to the privilege and luxury of walking into a grocery store and choosing anything in the whole place you hopefully have enough money to purchase, you are pretty limited when it comes to food there. Whatever I could stuff in a suitcase and bring from the States (ClifBars and protein powder) or pick up from an Indian bodega (spicy Top Ramen noodles called Maggi) is about the only variety I got there. Similarly, for almost five whole months, I barely cooked. This says a lot for me. I cook all the time. Every day if I can. It feels unnatural for me not to cook and every time I order take out or even go to some restaurants, I feel lazy. Or I think about how I would prepare this or that dish differently in my own kitchen. So after five months of eating basically whatever was served to me from the skilled yet redundant cooks at SRA, I was definitely ready to stretch my euros and do some crazy shopping, cooking and eating in Ilana’s charming apartment in Cuenca. And most luckily I found 101cookbooks.com through an ad on Gmail of all places, showed Ilana, and five minutes later we were stepping out into the brilliant Spanish sun, wallets and shopping bags in hand, heading for one of Spain’s famous markets. Back in a jiffy and back in her kitchen, we got down to the brass tacks of toasting almonds and trying to figure out if we had enough tahini and oh-so-carefully handling the delicate green jewels tossed in tangy tahini sauce. Sitting down at her table with a glass of red wine and a bowl filled to the brim, food never tasted so good.
And so now, as I walk along McCarren Park on Saturday mornings and come across, if only for a brief time, spears of asparagus that continue to jog these sun-soaked kitchen memories long after Ilana and I returned to the States and many, many SRA trips later. But you know, even if Tasty Asparagus isn’t your thing, you can find the recipes to my other favorite asparagus recipes below. Enjoy!
Ten Minute Tasty Asparagus and Brown Rice
From 101cookbooks.com, copyright 2007. Serves 4-6.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 or 2 14-ounce cans of chickpeas, drained
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 bunch asparagus, cut into 1-inch segments
3 cups pre-cooked brown rice
1 cup almond slivers, toasted
fine grain sea salt
1 garlic clove, smashed and chopped
1/4 cup tahini
zest of one lemon
scant 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons hot water
scant 1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
If you’re using frozen rice (did I just say that?), heat it on its own in a pot or per package instructions.
Make the dressing by whisking together the garlic, tahini, lemon zest and juice, and olive oil. Add the hot water to thin a bit and then the salt. Set aside.
Add a couple of glugs of olive oil (roughly 3 tablespoons) to a big skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl the oil around to coat the pan, then add the chickpeas and sprinkling of salt. Let the beans saute there for a couple of minutes (I like to try to get some crusty color on them). Be careful, they seem to hiss and pop more than other beans over high heat. Add the garlic and onions. Stir for a minute. Stir in the asparagus with another pinch or two of salt, cover with a lid for a minute or two to steam – just until the asparagus brightens and softens up just a bit. Uncover and stir in the rice and almond slivers, reserving a few almonds for garnish. Taste and add more salt if needed (likely). Serve family style in a big bowl drizzled with a few tablespoons of the tahini dressing, let each person add more dressing to their tastes.
Spicy Stir Fried Asparagus
Adapted from The House of Rice cooking classes, best guess – early 1990’s.Serves 4.
1 bunch asparagus, rinsed and bottom inch cut off
4 cloves of garlic, slivered
1 tbsp neutral-tasting oil
2 tbsp chili sauce with black bean paste, found at Asian markets
2 tbsp mirin or rice wine vinegar
2 tbsp water or broth
1 tsp corn starch or flour
Mix the chili paste, mirin, water (or broth) and corn starch together in a small bowl. Put side. Shave the bottom 3 inches of the asparagus with a vegetable peeler and cut on a diagonal into 1 inch pieces. In a wok or skillet, heat oil until popping over high heat. Add asparagus and let brown, tossing occasionally, for 4 minutes. Add garlic and fry for another minute. Add about 2 tablespoons of water to the pan, turn the heat down to medium and cover for 2 minutes. Remove lid, add chili sauce and simmer for 1 minute, until sauce is thick. Serve with rice and a piece of grilled chicken or fish.
Fried Eggs and Asparagus with Parmesan
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine (RIP), copyright 2001. See original recipe here. Serves 2.
1 1/2 pound medium asparagus, trimmed and, if desired, peeled
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (2 oz)
4 large eggs, preferably organic
Set oven rack in upper third of oven, then preheat oven to 425°F.
Cook asparagus in a large deep skillet of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 4 minutes. Transfer with tongs to paper towels to drain.
Generously butter gratin dishes using 1/2 tablespoon butter total, then divide asparagus between them. Season with salt and pepper, then sprinkle with half of cheese.
Poach eggs, slightly under cooking.
Carefully transfer 2 eggs to each gratin dish with a slotted spatula, placing on top of asparagus. Sprinkle eggs with remaining cheese and drizzle with any butter remaining in skillet.
Bake in upper third of oven until cheese is melted and eggs are cooked as desired, 4 to 5 minutes for runny yolks.