Although I like to do my share of experimenting in the kitchen, you’ll never hear me claim to be on the cutting edge of cooking or food trends. Even still, I suffer a bit of pique when I finally get around to making something that many others have already blogged about, and it’s so good, and seems like the most obvious thing in the world that I wonder why the heck it took me so long to try it. I hesitated a bit to write about this salad since it’s kind of reaching a saturation point in the foodblogosphere. But then I figured if it’s new to me, it’s likely there are those among you who still haven’t had it, and it really is so worth trying, bandwagon be damned.
Although a current trend, shaved asparagus salad is far from cutting edge- I found a recipe for it in a Chez Panisse cookbook (I believe it was this one), so it dates at least from the ’90s if not before. But it certainly seems to be enjoying a bit of a moment right now. I think my initial pause, if you could call it that, was in the fact that I assumed (wrongly) that raw asparagus would have more of the slightly stinky, bitter edge than cooked asparagus does. I say this as an asparagus lover, mind you, and a fan of most all green vegetables. But I never felt a particular urge to try asparagus uncooked as a salad, any more so than I would, say, cauliflower or okra or green beans.
Until recently, that is, when we were on our third or fourth bunch of asparagus in just about as many days (I went a little nuts when the Michigan asparagus finally arrived, later than usual after the weeks of unseasonably chill weather). We’d had it roasted, steamed, stir fried and grilled, and it was time for something new. I got out my vegetable peeler and got to work.
When I had a bowl piled high with pale green tangles, I dressed it lightly with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. I crumbled ricotta salata on top, along with toasted, chopped pistachios whose hue echoed that of the asparagus ribbons. I am only slightly embarrassed to say that I hoovered the entire dish down in minutes, it was so good. The salad had a sweetness to it that I hadn’t expected, and none of the “raw-tasting” quality I’d subconsciously feared- at least not in a bad way. It tasted raw in the sense of fresh, light and healthy; just what you’d crave on a warm day. I made it again the next day and ate nothing besides that for my supper, polishing off the fat bunch of spears all by myself in what amounted to two oversize servings. Continue reading
Ever since reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper last year, I’ve been hankering to get into more authentic Chinese cooking. I realize “authenticity” is subjective and can be cause for debate, but in the broad sense I mean food that would actually be prepared in a Chinese home, rather than dishes that were created Stateside and appear on every Chinese take-out menu from Dubuque to Des Moines.
With that in mind, I picked up The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young from the library recently. It focuses in on the techniques of wok cooking as a necessary component of Chinese cookery, as opposed to some Asian cookbooks that reassure the cook that it’s fine to just stir fry in a skillet if need be. The way Young describes the use of a wok, it’s practically an ingredient unto itself. Anyone who’s had a well-prepared stir fry can identify the flavor of wok hay, the essence or “breath” of the wok, as Young translates it. It’s that underlying hint of smokiness that you just don’t get unless you cook at extremely high temperatures, and it is simply not possible to accomplish with a Western skillet.
So vital is the selection, care, technique and culture of the wok that Young spends the first 65 pages of her book discussing these topics before any recipes are given. I read most of those pages, but the other night I was feeling eager to dive in so I thought I’d forge ahead and try my hand at one of the recipes, a scallop & asparagus stir fry. Apart from one misstep at the very beginning (minced garlic that turned black within seconds of being added to the uber-hot wok), the recipe was a breeze. Best of all, when I tasted the dish, there it was- the slight “grilled” flavor of wok hay! It felt like a revelation. I served it with a very non-authentic but delicious variation of my favorite carrot and avocado salad, where I subbed in ginger, hot chili paste, rice vinegar and a touch of soy sauce for the French vinaigrette.
Even if you only make the occasional stir fry, I would highly recommend reading Young’s chapters about wok use and putting her advice into practice. That little bit of knowledge just might have you creating some wok hay of your own, and I’m here to tell you it’s worth whatever small extra effort might be involved. My scallop stir-fry was easily one of the best I’ve made- the scallops seared but juicy; the vegetables crisp-tender; the sauce just a sheer glaze that nicely flavored without drowning the ingredients. I have a feeling the wok is going to be put to use a little more often in our household in the near future.
I can’t summarize Young’s 65 pages for you, of course, but here are a few tips for achieving wok hay in your own kitchen:
- Use a carbon-steel wok, never nonstick.
- Have all ingredients close at hand; the process goes lightning fast and there’s no time to realize you forgot a component during cooking.
- Don’t exceed the amount of ingredients a recipe calls for or add too much to the wok at one time; it brings the temperature down too far and your food will steam instead of sear.
Notes: The original recipe called for 1 lb of asparagus. I only had about 3/4 lb so I subbed in some snow peas for the remaining 1/4 lb. The important thing is not to go over 1 lb total of vegetables, because it will reduce the wok’s heat too much. The only other change I made was to sprinkle the garlic on top of the scallops when I put them in the wok. When I put the garlic in first, I found that it instantly burned and I had to start over.
1 lb. scallops (if you want to splurge, use fresh dry sea scallops, but I used frozen, thawed bay scallops and they tasted fine)
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed & cut into 2-inch pieces
1 ¼ tsp salt
4 tsp Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
2 ¼ tsp cornstarch
1 ½ tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp ground white pepper
1 Tbs peanut or other vegetable oil
1 Tbs minced garlic
Put 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan with 1 tsp salt and bring to the boil. Add asparagus. When the water returns to a boil, remove from heat and drain the asparagus; set aside. (If using any snow peas, they do not need to be blanched.)
Rinse the scallops and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Combine in a bowl with the sesame oil, white pepper, 1 ¼ tsp of the cornstarch, 1 tsp of the rice wine and the remaining ¼ tsp of salt; mix well to combine. In another bowl, combine the remaining 1 tsp cornstarch, rice wine, and the oyster sauce with ¼ cup cold water.
Place scallops, asparagus, sauce and garlic within hands’ reach of the stove. Heat a 14″ flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1-2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil. Add the scallops, carefully spreading them in a single layer. Sprinkle the garlic on top. Cook undisturbed for 30 seconds to allow them to brown; then stir-fry with a metal spatula for 30-60 seconds or until scallops are light brown but not cooked through. Add the asparagus. Stir the sauce mixture and add to the wok. Bring to the boil to thicken the sauce and finish cooking the scallops, about 30 seconds.
Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal.
I recently finished reading Russ Parsons’ How to Pick a Peach for our first book club discussion, and thought it would be fitting to cook a couple of his recipes to enhance the experience. Since the book is sectioned by season, I flipped through the “Spring” recipes for ideas. Right off the bat there was a recipe that appealed to me in the Onions chapter for a grilled cheese with onions. Like me, I’m sure most of you don’t need a recipe for grilled cheese; for me the recipe was more a reminder of how great a simple combo like cheese and onions can be. He dresses it up a bit by using a fancy cheese, and dressing the onions in a little champagne vinegar and parsley. The other recipe I chose, Asparagus-Shrimp risotto, was dictated by the fact that asparagus is just about the only seasonal Michigan produce you can get in the farmers’ markets right now (with the exception of rhubarb, which was not in the book).
Parsons’ grilled cheese is meant to be cut into strips and served as an appetizer with wine or (as he suggests) Champagne. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to eschew an opportunity to drink Champagne, but the only chance I had to make this was at lunch, alone, and seeing as how I had other chores to do that day, the Champagne was not an option. Anyhow, the basics are: white bread with the crusts trimmed (I left mine on), very thinly sliced sweet onions (Vidalia, Walla Walla, whatever) marinated in a splash of Champagne vinegar (I used white wine vinegar), chopped parsley, and some soft cheese (he suggests Taleggio, Brie or Taleme; I used Fontina). Something I learned from the book is that sweet onions aren’t any “sweeter” than cooking onions; they just contain much less of the sulfurous compound that makes onions taste oniony. It’s really kind of pointless to even cook with them, since what little onion flavor they have dissipates with cooking. My Vidalias were so mild that I put an entire 1/2 onion on my sandwich and for my taste, it still could have used more onion flavor. I was also a little disappointed in the Fontina; despite the fancy Euro name, it tasted almost exactly like Monterey Jack (but of course cost more). I think a slightly more assertive cheese would be my preference if I made this again. Either that, or I’d put a little Dijon mustard on it. I also added a sprinkle of salt and pepper to my onions before putting them on the sandwich. With a green salad, it was a simple but satisfying lunch, if not altogether nutritious.
The Asparagus-Shrimp risotto was also familiar ground, but I thought I would try his method of making a simple, light stock out of the trimmings rather than use the usual chicken stock. I have to say, though, 1/4 lb shrimp does not make for a heck of a lot of shrimp shells, so don’t expect a pronounced seafood flavor. I actually save shrimp shells in the freezer for occasions such as this, though, so I was able to amp it up a little. (I used more than 1/4 lb shrimp, too- more like 1/3 or 1/2 lb.)
You probably know the drill with making risotto, but to sum up the recipe: 2 cups arborio rice, 1 1/4 lb asparagus (skinny works well for this recipe), 1/4 lb shrimp (or more), 1 onion, 9 cups H2O, 1/2 c dry white wine, 4 tbs butter, a few tbs Parmigiano. Trim the asparagus, reserve the tips and cut the stems into 1/3-inch rounds. Dice the onion and shell the shrimp; put the trimmings from the above ingredients into a stockpot with the water and simmer for at least 30 minutes. Melt 3 tbs butter in a large skillet and add the asparagus stems and onion and cook until onion begins to soften; add 2 cups arborio rice and cook another 5 min or so. Add wine and cook until evaporated. Start adding the hot stock, about 3 ladles’ worth at a time, ladling it through a strainer, stirring as it cooks down, repeating the process as the stock gets absorbed. Before the final addition of stock, add the raw shrimp and asparagus tips. I like to cut each shrimp into 3 or 4 pieces, so that it’s more evenly distributed through the risotto, but also so it cooks in the same time as the asparagus tips. Since the stock is unsalted, you’ll need to add a fair amount of salt, which you can do at this stage. According to Parsons, your result should be fairly soupy (it does tend to thicken up a bit as it sits). Add the final tbs butter and the cheese, and enjoy with a green salad (I made a lemon-Dijon- Parmigiano vinaigrette) and a crisp glass of white.