This chilled Chinese salad makes the most of minimal preparation and four simple ingredients—asparagus, soy sauce, sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds. Recipe below.
It snowed Monday night in Chicago. Still, it’s officially spring, and beautifully thin asparagus is starting to turn up in grocery stores—and along some roadsides. So I’m going to turn the kitchen over to Marion and let her tell you (and me) about her foraging adventures before we met.
Asparagus wasn’t my first experience with gathering food from the wild—that would have been mushroom and berry picking, when I was a kid—but it was my first great breakthrough as an adult, when I had half forgotten the experiences of my childhood. That you could wade into all that mixed weedy stuff by the roadside and come out with a handful of tender! young! asparagus! (and for free, I might add) was a revelation.
At about this time of year, I would prowl along the roadside, walking up and down (and, to be honest, sometimes creeping along in the car) looking for the telltale signs—the best indicator being the pale brushy tree-shaped skeletons of last year’s crop gone to seed.
If you are hunting for wild asparagus, here are some tips. First, it sprouts a little ahead of the cultivated varieties. It likes full sun—you won’t find it in the woods. It likes moist, rich soil but not to have its feet wet. It’s easy to find along the edges of fields and by the roadside, but choose your roadside well. I see lots of asparagus along the superhighways, but I would never pick it—if the soil is contaminated, the asparagus will be too.
The wild asparagus we find in North America is actually not a native plant. It is from the Old World, the descendant of escapees from Colonial gardens. In Europe, it seems to have originated around the Mediterranean, but even in ancient times had spread, through cultivation, across the continent and even into Egypt. Now it is grown all over the world and, of course, has moved into many climates, and into many cuisines. This recipe, for instance, is Chinese, and China is one of the world’s largest growers of commercial asparagus. (The leading exporter of asparagus, says Wikipedia, is Peru.)
This is a simple salad that is so fast and easy to make that this is more a description than a recipe. It is best with very slender asparagus. You can put it together in a few minutes, and do it all a couple of hours ahead of dinner if you wish or very immediately beforehand.
Chinese Sesame Asparagus Salad
Serves four to six
1 pound thin asparagus (see Kitchen Notes)
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds, toasted
Half fill a flat-bottom bowl or container with cold water and lots of ice cubes. Put about a half inch of water in a flat-bottomed nonstick skillet, cover it and bring the water to a boil. Scatter the asparagus in the water so it is well spaced and lying flat. Cover immediately and set a timer for 60 seconds. When the timer beeps, working fast, take off the lid, carefully lift out the asparagus with tongs and place it straight into the iced water. The asparagus should still be bright green. When you have moved all the asparagus into the iced water, stir the water gently around the stalks with your hands to make sure the asparagus cools as fast as possible.
Let it sit in the water for a minute while you mix together the soy sauce, sesame oil and 1 tablespoon of water.
Lift the asparagus from the iced water and blot it a bit on a lint-free cloth, then put it in a flat-bottomed dish. (I use a glass pie plate.) Pour the dressing all over it, cover with a piece of waxed paper or a pot lid, and set in the refrigerator for a few minutes.
Toast the sesame seeds. Heat a dry nonstick skillet over medium heat, then when it is hot pour in the sesame seeds. Stir them with a spatula over the heat until they are nicely toasted. Don’t let them get too dark—a light brown will do it. This should take about three minutes. Pour them into a bowl.
Assemble the salad. To serve the asparagus, place stalks all together on a platter, or divide onto individual plates. Spoon a little of the dressing around the stalks, then scatter the seeds all around, and there you are. The sweetness of the asparagus, the salt intensity of the dressing, the nutty flavor of the sesame seeds: this is marvelous. Eat it with your fingers.
All about asparagus. We choose really thin asparagus whenever possible. If you prefer thicker asparagus, cook longer accordingly. The mid-sized stalks that are widely available in stores should be cooked for about 90 seconds. I don’t recommend the very thick, cigar-sized asparagus for this dish.
To prep the stalks for cooking, rinse them quickly, then hold the bottom end in both hands and bend it until it snaps. That’s how to tell the best place to trim the stalk—it’s where the stalk naturally snaps.
All about foraging asparagus. Asparagus is a perennial, meaning it will sprout in the same place year after year. Once you locate a patch of it in the wild, you will find it there forever, or until something bad happens to that spot (for instance, road widening, or housing development, or a straying plow). If you do hunt asparagus in the wild, don’t overpick a patch; let the tiny stalks mature so you don’t set back the plant. If you find a patch near your home during the summer, don’t pick it; that won’t encourage the plant to throw fresh stalks, but it will harm it. Mark the spot for next year.
Of course, we all already know how to look for asparagus in grocery stores, where you are guaranteed uniformity of size and appearance.
Finally, watch out! Asparagus isn’t the only thing growing out there. Years back, one of my favorite patches could only be reached by navigating past some sticker bushes and around a nasty tangle of poison ivy, which loves exactly the same environs as asparagus.