“People who hung out with James in his kitchens in Greenwich Village always noted what a great improviser he was,” James Beard’s biographer, John Birdsall, tells me in an email. “He’d open the fridge, poke around, grab things off the shelves of his cupboards, and concoct something surprising and delicious. He had a well-developed sense of flavor and balance, and he stocked his kitchen with quality ingredients (Maldon flake salt he'd order from Harrods in London, for instance).”
This asparagus recipe—though it’s hardly a recipe, and more a single clause in Beard’s memoir Delights and Prejudices: “cut in paper-thin diagonal slices and tossed with butter and soy for two or three minutes in a hot skillet, which gives it a delightful texture”—is my best attempt at interpreting what the bachelor gourmand claims to have cooked for himself when he dined alone.
I’ve found that you can use whatever raw vegetables you have (be it asparagus, broccoli, or sugar snap peas). Just be sure to slice them paper-thin so they cook quickly, and toss them in a hot pan with the butter and soy sauce for no more than two minutes. What this means is the raw edge of the vegetable gets cooked off while still maintaining its crunch.
And though Birdsall was able to confirm that Beard’s wording, “paper-thin diagonal slices,” most likely meant stalks cut on the bias (about one- to two-inch pieces), there’s something pleasurable about eating various shapes of the same vegetable, all with slightly different textures. The combination is, for me, what makes this dish especially “delightful.”
Loosely adapted from a very good line in Delights and Prejudices by James Beard. —Eric Kim
Heat a skillet over high heat and melt the butter. Add the asparagus, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 1 minute. Add the soy sauce and cook for another minute or so, until the butter and soy sauce bubble up into a sticky glaze. Serve with white rice.
Eric Kim is a senior editor at Food52, where his solo dining column, Table for One, runs Friday mornings. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.