Fresh take: Celebrate the coming of spring with a new look at asparagus
Spring is on the horizon. For many of us, it has seemed like a long time coming. So, when the weather starts warming up even a little, it really does feel miraculous -- especially when new seasonal vegetables begin appearing in farmers markets, from locally grown asparagus to peas to the first fresh fava beans to tender, young leafy greens.
In celebration, I'd like to share one of my favorite recipes featuring asparagus: a fresh-tasting, Japanese-inspired salad that my catering team and I recently served at the Governors Ball celebration following the Academy Awards ceremony just a couple of weeks ago.
I find that bright, slightly sharp Asian seasonings like those featured in the dressing for this appetizer salad are perfect complements to the particularly fresh flavor of springtime asparagus, which can taste so much sweeter, milder and greener than the earthier flavor of the spears you find on sale year-round in many markets.
Almost all of the ingredients are fairly easy to find. Bottles of sharp, clean-flavored, unseasoned rice vinegar are usually shelved in the vinegar section of most well-stocked markets. You'll find rich-tasting, salty (yet mild and sweet) white miso paste, made from fermented soybeans combined with rice, in many supermarkets in both refrigerated and unrefrigerated forms; once opened, store it in the refrigerator, where it will keep for many months. Slices of sweet, spicy and tangy pickled ginger, the sort served alongside sushi, is sold in jars in many markets; and you can often buy small containers of it found alongside prepared packages of sushi in supermarket "grab-and-go" sections.
The only ingredient you may find a little harder to locate is the sansho pepper, a packaged Japanese seasoning made from the berries of a shrub called prickly ash, which have a citrusy flavor. If you don't have an Asian market nearby, buy it online; or just substitute a little ground Szechuan or black pepper.
With all the ingredients on hand, you'll find the recipe very easy to prepare. Take care to trim the asparagus, trimming off the tough ends and peeling any thick skin so you can enjoy as much of each spear as possible. And be sure not to overcook the asparagus, immersing it in salted boiling water for just 10 seconds or so and then, after draining, immediately plunging the spears into ice water to stop the cooking at the tender-crisp stage and keep the color a bright green that's a perfect expression of the new season.
ASIAN ASPARAGUS SALAD
1 bunch jumbo asparagus, about 1 pound (500 g)
1/4 cup (60 mL) unseasoned rice vinegar