Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Asparagus with seasoned rice noodles

If you are like me and find most attempts to coat hard vegetables (like asparagus and green beans) with flavor just a bit more of a bother than seems right, let me share a new way to enjoy them.

Up to now, the only way I've really enjoyed Chinese style green beans is when I've used the Sichuanese method called "dry frying," which really means that the beans have to be deep fried before being tossed in a sauce. 

Asparagus, while admittedly a newcomer to Chinese cuisine, also seems stubbornly resistant to any flavorings that aren't stuck on to the stems with cornstarch or other thickeners. Even so, these veggies --especially when cooked in restaurants -- often teeter between an unwelcome rawness and mushy oblivion.

An early spring crop
That is why a novel idea from Shanghai grabbed my attention.

Here, the asparagus is first quickly steam-fried so that it is barely done, keeping the lovely lengths a sparkling green and cooking them to the perfect degree of doneness. Once they are ready, everything else is tossed in, and all of the flavors gang up on the rice noodles, which turn a lovely shade of mahogany.

The brilliant thing about this is the way that rice noodles readily absorb all of the seasonings and then drape themselves around and among the veggies so that each bite is a spectrum of flavors and textures.

This is another one of those super easy recipes that rely on a clever bit of know-how (in this case, using the rice noodles to transport the savory sauce) rather than lots of time and preparation.

Crunchy yet soothing
You can use any other green vegetable here that is not leafy, like snow peas, those green beans, and so on; whatever is in season and appeals to you. All of the prep is easily done ahead of time, and if you are serving these at a dinner party, you could even cook the veggies earlier in the day so that all you have to do is toss them with the rice noodles and sauce. 

Who says Chinese food has to be hard?


Asparagus with seasoned rice noodles 
Lusun chao mifen 蘆筍炒米粉  
Shanghai
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal

6 to 8 ounces wide or thin dry rice noodles (see Tips)
1 pound very fresh asparagus (see Tips)
Filtered water as needed
Trap the steam with a small lid
1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1½ tablespoons sweet wheat paste
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
1¼ cups filtered water
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

1. Place the rice noodles in a medium work bowl and cover with cool tap water; allow them to soak for about 30 minutes until they are white and soft, and then drain. Wash and trim the asparagus, removing and discarding the tough ends. Cut the stalks into 2-inch lengths. 

Taiwanese rice noodles
2. Put the asparagus in a wok along with a tablespoon or so of water, the oil, and salt. Bring the wok to a boil and place a small lid on top of the veggies to trap some of the steam and keep them more or less submerged. Open the lid now and then to toss the asparagus. (The asparagus and noodles can be prepared ahead of time up to this point.)

3. When the asparagus is a bright green and has just a hint of rawness in the center, add the sesame oil, garlic, sweet wheat paste, sugar, rice wine, 1¼ cups water, and the softened rice noodles. Bring the wok to a boil over high heat and toss the veggies with the noodles and the sauce for only about 2 minutes to allow the noodles to soak up the sauce. Plate the dish and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Serve hot.

Tips

Select asparagus that have tight, purplish heads with no signs of decay or dryness. The stems should be taut and juicy, while the ends of the stems should be white where they were cut. All of these tell you that the asparagus is fresh.
Softened rice noodles

Store asparagus in the fridge, preferably with the cut ends in a bit of water and the tops covered with a plastic bag, since these actually are just very dignified fern fronds. Asparagus doesn't keep well for more than a day or two, so use it up as soon as you can.

Break off the ends with your fingers, rather than cutting off the ends, as this allows you to keep only the tender parts of the stalks.

Rice noodles from the town of Puli (Poolee) in Taiwan are superb. Green bean noodles (fentiao) are equally good in this dish; as with the rice noodles, you can use wide or thick ones, and they too require a soaking in cool water to ready them for this dish.

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