“Other than shad roe,” said Ris, as we walked around the farmers market on a windy Saturday afternoon, “asparagus is just the harbinger of spring.” Looking around, every vendor had buckets of the fat, twiggy vegetables, rubber-banded in bunches with their spiky pompadours pointed toward the sky. And everyone at the market that day seemed to be there just for the occasion with baggies, satchels and Radio Flyers overflowing with springtime’s most famous green.
With their celebrated six-week lifespan, asparagus is like a revered culinary house guest that restaurants gear up to accommodate every season for their brief, glorious visit. On the first warm days of each year, anticipation for them is immediate and stifling; in a draft of last month’s column, I prematurely alluded to the crunchy spearheads, caught up in simultaneous thoughts of spring afternoons and their companionable treat. Ris had to hold me back, imploring me not to let loose a wave of untimely kitchen references.
“But it’s true,” she says. “There is something about being able to just eat asparagus fresh, right out of the ground that screams spring, freshness, growth. It’s revitalizing. They are such stunning, beautiful vegetables, and so much brighter than produce you see in the winter, that it awakens a certain spirit within us, and a desire for seasonal produce.”
Whether grilled, sautéed, steamed, roasted or fried, asparagus’ distinct flavor, crispness and seasonality have made it a delicacy for millennia. It was cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who also dried it out for use during the winter months. There is a recipe for asparagus in the oldest surviving cookbook from the third century AD, and a rendering of the spears even grace an ancient Egyptian frieze dating back to 3000 BCE.
“And it lends itself so well to so many flavor sensations,” says Ris. Asian cuisine uses it frequently in stir-fry, Italians wrap it in prosciutto, the French steam it and drizzle it with Hollandaise sauce, the Greek grill it with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Shave it with a potato peeler and mix it with salad greens, throw it in eggs or add it to almost anything for a fresh twist on classic dishes.
As for Ris, she has her own ways of dealing with this springtime herald. Her favorite, simple method of cooking asparagus is a quick pan roast. She puts a skillet on the burner until its quite hot, making sure the pan heats evenly and all the way through. She drizzles some oil in the pan, a couple tablespoons at the most, and as soon as it heats up she throws in the asparagus, tosses it around and covers it with a lid. Ris lets the asparagus sit for three to five minutes, unconcerned with unevenly browning the spears. “It adds character,” she says. “This steam/sear method gives the asparagus a great texture while allowing it to largely retain its moisture and flavor without being diluted.”
She then lifts the lid, adds salt, pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon, and flips them. “I wait for the asparagus to cook a bit before adding the salt and pepper because it needs to soften up and release some water before the outer skin can absorb other flavors.”
After another minute or two on the pan, she takes them off and plates them, adding a sprinkle more lemon, pine nuts, fresh croutons, chopped hardboiled egg, a shave of parmesan and some quality feta cheese. “The feta is a power house flavor that balances the strength of the asparagus,” she says.
This is too easy and too good of a dish not to try for yourself. Ris recommends picking up the feta from Lebanese Taverna, which according to her has the best around.
In the kitchen at RIS, however, asparagus gets more of a royal treatment. Her asparagus and grapefruit salad, a “combination of dishes that came together over the years,” is a customer favorite. “This is one of those dishes where people cry when we take it off the menu each season,” she says. “But what can you do? We put it on the menu when asparagus is in season, and you take it off when it’s gone.”
It is at once deceivingly simple and meticulous in its preparation. The asparagus is marinated in house-made miso vinaigrette, and the dish is topped with a ginger-lime glaze. Both are fairly elaborate, but worth the effort depending on the depth of your love for this world-class delicacy. “Asparagus, with its strong almost bitterness, mixes so well with acid and citrus from the grapefruit and dressings. The flavors temper each other and balance the palate.”
But the bottom line is: asparagus is now. Run to the farmers market and pick it up while you can. This weekend will also see the arrival of strawberries, Ris informs me. Perhaps a seared tuna steak with goat cheese, strawberries and fresh asparagus? What are you waiting for?
Asparagus and Gingered Grapefruit Salad
By Ris Lacoste
“Don’t be afraid of these ingredients. These are great, versatile dressings that work well with many salads and keep forever in the fridge. They’re well worth the effort.”
2 cups miso vinaigrette (see recipe below)
2 cups ginger glaze (see recipe below)
42 pieces of large asparagus
36 sections of pink grapefruit, 4-5 grapefruit
¼ cup mixed black and white sesame seeds
2 scallions, cut thinly at an angle
Make the miso vinaigrette and ginger glaze ahead of time and keep in the refrigerator. Ever so slightly peel each stem of asparagus to eliminate any stringy toughness and to ensure even cooking. Blanch in a large pot of boiling salted water until the stems just bend, 3-5 minutes. Remove immediately to an ice bath to stop cooking and preserve green color.
Remove from the water as soon as the asparagus is chilled and drain. Asparagus is much more flavorful if not served ice cold, so keep at room temperature if just before service. If not, refrigerate until 10-15 minutes before ready to use.
Section grapefruit into a strainer over a bowl. Squeeze out as much juice as you can from the remaining fruit pith. Make sure the sections are whole and cleaned of all pith. (It is best to buy a couple of extra grapefruit, to assure enough perfect sections.) Place the sections into a separate bowl and cover with ginger glaze. Drink the fresh squeezed juice.
To arrange the salad, cover the asparagus with a cup or so of the miso vinaigrette, saving enough to dress the bottom of each salad plate. Let the asparagus soak in the dressing for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, cover the bottom of each salad plate with a layer of the miso vinaigrette. Arrange a log pile of 7 asparagus spears in the center of each plate. Arrange 3 grapefruit sections fanned out on each side of the asparagus. Sprinkle with scallions and sesame seeds.
Makes 3 cups
3 inches fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 tablespoon miso
1 ½ tablespoons chile paste with garlic (essential ingredient, found in Asian markets)
½ bunch cilantro, chopped
3 ounces sherry
4 ounces rice vinegar
5 ounces fish sauce (nuac nam, also found in Asian markets)
2 ounces lime juice
1 tablespoon honey
1 ounce sesame oil
4 ounces peanut oil
Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl except for the sesame oil and peanut oil. Whisk in each oil one at a time. This dressing will last indefinitely, covered in the refrigerator.
Ginger Lime Glaze
Makes 2 cups
8” ginger, peeled and cut into very fine threads
zest of 4 limes
1 ½ cups tarragon vinegar
¾ cup sugar
Combine all ingredients in a non reactive pot. Bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and let sit for 5 minutes to infuse flavors. Bring back to a boil and repeat process. Bring back to a boil for a third time. Set aside until cool enough to cover and refrigerate. The glaze will last indefinitely and makes a great iced or hot tea base.