When I was a child, I felt little-or-no enthusiasm for cooked vegetables. I regarded them as soft and gray (ironically, an apt description of my adult self).
Among the foods I singled out for special loathing was asparagus. Those limp, slimy, and vaguely stringy stalks were the stuff of gastronomic nightmares. I employed most of the traditional childhood ploys to avoid eating them (with any luck, my parents got rid of their old furniture before discovering the dessicated remains of a decade’s worth of vegetable matter hidden in its recesses).
Then I went away to college.
At New Paltz, the first stirrings of the hippy movement brought together several strands of collegiate culinary life: experimentation with new foods (and other things not entirely relevant here), vegetarianism, belief in the goodness of anything “back-to-nature,” and – of course – cheapness. The pursuit of the last two led to the fortuitous discovery of a remarkable book, and an unlikely role-model for a hippy cook. Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus —the first of several books about what we would today call “foraging” —was a real eye-opener.
Practically-illustrated, and wittily-written, the Stalking books promised everything an adventurous (and impecunious) cook could want. Admittedly, Gibbons’ recipes weren’t very inspired – but, compared with the omnipresent brown rice and Anadama bread of the times, that was easily forgiven. The essential point was that there was free food for the taking, practically everywhere.
It didn’t take long before I found a patch of wild asparagus growing alongside the road, not far from the Tuttletown Grist Mill. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of revisiting my old nemesis, but it was, after all, free. I took it home, steamed it, and poured some garlic butter on it. It was freakin’ amazing! How could this be the same thing that so disgusted me as a child?
Then I realized that this was the first time I had experienced fresh asparagus. The scales having fallen from my eyes, hated vegetable after hated vegetable became new-found favorites. Brussels sprouts, even spinach, received most-favored status on my plate.
In spring, the only time for picking the elusive asparagus, they’re almost impossible to locate – unless you know where to look. Eventually, I learned a few tricks for finding them. The delicate golden fronds are easy to spot in the fall, so I make a mental note of the spots, whenever I see them, for the next spring’s harvest. I know, now, where to look for those autumnal tell-tales: under telephone lines. Birds love the asparagus berries, but can’t digest the seeds. When they perch on the wires, they do what birds always do, inadvertently planting new asparagus beds in long lines below the wires.
Asparagus and Shrimp in Black Bean Sauce
Serves two as a main course, more as part of a multi-course Chinese meal
1 bunch fresh asparagus
½ pound shrimp, peeled and deveined (if large, cut in half)
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced
½ inch fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 Tablespoons Chinese salted black beans, rinsed and slightly crushed
1 teaspoon Chinese soy sauce (see note)
2 Tablespoons peanut oil
2 scallions, trimmed, chopped ¼-inch-long, diagonally
1 teaspoon Chinese sesame oil
- Break off the tough bottom portion of each stalk of asparagus. If they are thick, a vegetable peeler will remove the stringy outsides. Cut, diagonally, into 2-inch pieces.
- Combine garlic, ginger, black beans, and soy sauce. Set aside.
- Heat oil in wok or large skillet until just starting to form wisps of smoke.
- Add sauce mixture and stir-fry for thirty seconds, until fragrant.
- Add asparagus and stir-fry for two-three minutes. They should still be bright green, but starting to get tender.
- Add shrimp and stir-fry until pink and opaque. If, at any point, the pan looks too dry and in danger of burning, a few drops of water can be added.
- Remove from heat, toss with sesame oil, and pour onto serving dish. Garnish with chopped scallions and serve with white rice.
Note: It is important to use regular Chinese soy sauce —not Chinese black soy, not Chinese mushroom soy, not Japanese shoyu, not Tamari —and certainly not the imitation stuff that grocery stores sell.
Gary Allen’s most recently published book, (this September), is Sausage: A Global History. The next one, Can It!: A History of Preserved Foods is soon to follow sometime next year. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us