Spring may signal bountiful flowers. But for me, first and foremost, it brings asparagus.
I can barely contain myself when the first spears start showing up at the farmers markets. Because from then on out, I eat my fill of those sweet, thick spears every week until they disappear all too rapidly at the end of their short season.
Asparagus aren’t often highlighted in Indian cooking. So, when I spied a recipe for “Asparagus Fry” flavored with chilies, mustard seeds, and shredded coconut, I was all in.
It’s by San Franciscan Shivangi Rao, a designer and product manager in the healthcare industry, who founded the blog, Raody Recipes.
Growing up, Rao was plagued by digestive and cognitive autoimmune illnesses, which even impacted her ability to walk at one point. She eventually learned that certain foods triggered her symptoms, which led her to eliminate them. The only problem was many of them were the beloved foods she had grown up with: Indian sweets made with refined sugar; lentils high in starch; and rice and roti, both high in simple carbohydrates.
So, she set out on a path to reclaim those flavors that are so integral to her family and culture.
With his trademark crisp white shirt, Christmas-red bow tie, and denim overalls that he’s never without (not even at the black-tie Jame Beard Awards), Farmer Lee Jones is a larger-than-life character.
But he is no caricature.
He is the real deal.
When his family nearly lost its soy bean and corn farm in Ohio during the 1980’s economic downturn, he managed to save it by taking a gamble to transform it.
Instead of growing feed crops like soybeans and corn, he downsized to nurture obscure specialty herbs, fruits and vegetables after a chance meeting with a chef looking for someone to grow squash blossoms.
Today, the small, sustainable Chef’s Garden is revered by chefs nationwide, including Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Jose Andres. It’s this farm that we have to thank for the whole microgreens movement. During the pandemic, the farm adapted to changing times once again, offering delivery of its produce to consumers so that Jones wouldn’t have to lay off any employees, despite its main customer base, restaurants, ordering far less because of curtailed operations.
Jones’ story is captured in “The Chef’s Garden: A Modern Guide to Common and Unusual Vegetables–with Recipes” (Avery), of which I received a review copy. Written by Jones with Kristin Donnelly, former food editor at Food & Wine magazine, this lavishly photographed 240-page book is not only packed with recipes, but detailed information about selecting, storing, cleaning and using a wealth of produce. The book hones in on both the familiar and the esoteric, from ramps, hearts of palm, and bamboo shoots to amaranth, arrowhead root, and crystal lettuces.
At times like this especially, it pays to have a well-stocked pantry loaded with spices, condiments, and dry goods from around the world.
My husband used to joke that our kitchen shelves runneth over with star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, yellow mustard seeds, cumin, pimenton, garam masala, za’atar, togarashi, and so much more.
Now, with a mandate to shelter in place during the coronavirus crisis, he is definitely grateful that I am such a culinary pack-rat.
Because that meant that after grabbing a bunch of fresh spring asparagus at the market just before the request came down to stay home as much as possible, I was able to easily make “Asparagus with Scrambled Egg Scattered Sushi.”
As the name implies, the recipes all require seven ingredients or fewer. Barber takes a little liberty with that because some recipes will require the making of sub-recipes to complete, which will add up to more than seven ingredients all together.
The book is full of inspired recipes that showcase the bounty available each season at the market. Try your hand at everything from “Vegetable Soup with Rhubarb” to “Vietnamese Noodle Salad Bowls” to Tofu, Spinach and Fennel Wontons.” There’s also a helpful guide (with photos) about Asian herbs and pantry ingredients that will aid you in finding them at an Asian or international market.
Asparagus spears are simmered in a sauce of coconut milk, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, and chili paste. It’s seasoned with a dash of soy sauce, but fish sauce would also work. As the sauce cooks, it thickens to coat the asparagus spears. Velvety, citrusy and just a little spicy, it’s made for spooning over a mound of fluffy steamed rice.