Today: Asparagus fatigue setting in? Let Nobu relight the fire. You won't even recognize your old friend.
Asparagus toys with us. We wait for the temptress all year, plodding through winter with our potatoes and our carrots, ignoring the pale bunches at the supermarket meant to placate us.
We abstain till springtime because we know that when the green spears shoot up from the ground nearby (often in a single day!), our patience will have paid off, with youthful stalks that taste that much sweeter and brighter. After a long, drab winter at the market, by the time our tender green friends show up, we are poised to go -- in a word -- buck-wild.
But by midway through the season (right about now), we've already pan-roasted, grilled, sauteed, pureed, and shaved. We know time is ticking down on our yearly fling with asparagus, but we're already starting to tire of it. As with new love's first squabbles, we start to snap the ends more carelessly and fault it for its hidden grit. We let bunches fade in the crisper while we spend time away with ramps and pea shoots, hoping to come back and feel that same spark.
Are you there yet, taking asparagus for granted and filled with creeping guilt? Don't worry: Nobu Matsuhisa is about to help you get the fire back, and then some.
In the book, Matsuhisa makes mochi out of bell peppers and steak out of cabbage -- and he fries asparagus. (And not in the state fair, we-can-fry-anything way. There's no blobby batter here.)
When you dip asparagus in hot oil, you won't recognize it. You might think roasting or tossing it in a saute pan would be similar, but it's really not.
After an oily plunge, its skin ripples and shines like the skin of a striped bass. The tips frizzle, each little purple talon spreads and crisps up all around the edges. The stalks turn vivid green and tender in just a minute or two under the oil. (And you don't need much oil at all -- just a couple inches in a pot wide enough to fit your spears.)
This technique can stand on its own, or with familiar sauces and toppings. Or you can continue to follow Matsuhisa's lead, and serve it with fried bits of leek (you already have the oil, after all) over a puddle of simple, spunky miso dressing. It's salty umami, smoothed out with a little rice vinegar, grated garlic, and oil, and it is delicious.
Here's the kicker: not only is this recipe a quick fix for asparagus fatigue, it also brings out its best qualities. Asparagus loves oil. "Because the chemical that makes asparagus taste like asparagus is water-soluble," Thomas Keller writes in Ad Hoc at Home, "we gravitate toward other ways to cook them besides blanching them in water, which diminishes some of their flavor." That asparagus-flavor chemical isn't soluble in oil, however, so its sweetness and grassy flavor aren't sapped in an oily bath, but concentrated.
Now, time's a-wasting. Go give asparagus all the love you know it deserves, before the season slips away.
Nobu's Fried Asparagus with Miso Dressing
From Nobu's Vegetarian Cookbook by Nobu Matsuhisa (PIE Books, 2012)
Serves 2 to 4 as a starter or side
3 ounces (90 g) white miso or red grain miso (akatsubu miso)
A dab of garlic paste (or one small garlic clove, grated)
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 cup (100 ml) grapeseed oil
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. (90 ml) rice vinegar
A little sugar syrup (optional)
3 in. (about 8 cm) white part of leek
Oil for deep-frying (like grapeseed, peanut, or even olive oil)
9 (or more) large spears green asparagus, about 9 oz. (270 g)
Photos by James Ransom