Thursday, April 11, 2013

Springtime in Hunan

There are countless ways of making this delightful Hunanese dish called Black Bean Asparagus, but the following is the recipe I like best. 

First, the flavor of the vegetable is not drowned in seasonings, but rather is simply propped up by them.

Second, very little oil is used. The water on the stalks will provide plenty of steam, but you can always pour in some rice wine if the asparagus threatens to burn before surrendering its rawness.

And third, the flavor of the dish can be varied either by the way you cut the asparagus or what aromatics you choose. Both fresh ginger and garlic are perfect here, and you can even use both, if you like, or add some fresh chili peppers or whatever suits your mood and your meal.

Asparagus confetti
I recently served this dish with the thinnest possible stalks, and my guests became almost rapturous over their fresh, grassy flavor. And then last night I tried something different, using a vegetable peeler to shred them, and both their taste and texture was remarkably different. (Did I mention that I love asparagus?)

When shopping for this vegetable, first look at the tips, which should be tight and not in the least bruised. Decay shows up first there. Purplish tips are the best, if you can find them. The cut ends should be plump with no withering, as that means they are drying out and you’ll have to waste lots of the stems before you find the tender parts.

Store these in the fridge with the cut ends in water with a plastic bag over the top. Or even better, use them up as soon as you get home while they still smell of spring rains and warm earth.

Keys to personal happiness
Black bean asparagus 
Dòuchĭ chǎo lúsŭn  豆豉炒蘆筍
Serves 4 

1 bunch fresh green asparagus, either thick or thin
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger or coarsely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fermented black beans
A splash of rice wine, optional

1. Rinse the asparagus; snap off and discard the tough ends. If the asparagus is thinner than a chopstick, simply cut each shoot into 2-inch lengths. If the asparagus is fat, you may roll cut it, slice it on a sharp diagonal, or use a vegetable peeler to shred it into confetti (see Tips and second photo).

2. Heat an empty wok over high heat until it is hot and then pour in the oil. Immediately add the ginger or garlic, as well as the chopped beans. Stir fry these for about a minute, or until the ginger or garlic just begins to brown. Scoot these up the side of the wok and toss in all of the asparagus. Stir-fry the vegetables until they are barely tender, and then toss them with the aromatics. (If the asparagus is very thick, splash in some wine to speed up the cooking.) Taste and adjust seasoning.


If you are going for thin stalks, try to get the really, really slender ones that appear in early spring. They smell like a new-mown lawn and are very tender.
Make them the same size

When using thick asparagus, the secret to making them very tender is to maximize the cooking surface of each stalk by cutting them on deep angles. It doesn’t matter whether they are roll cut or simply sliced on deep diagonals, as the results will be the same.

Another (admittedly non-Chinese) option is to use a vegetable peeler to shred them into very thin confetti. This gives the asparagus a completely different texture and a milder flavor.

You can ramp up the seasonings for this if you are serving the asparagus alongside something relatively bland; in that case, use 3 tablespoons of both the ginger/garlic and black beans.

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