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Late May is high season for local asparagus in New York City. I usually buy a bunch almost every time I visit my Greenmarket. We can be very happy with asparagus simply boiled, served hot or cold, with or without sauce (butter, mayonnaise, mustard, vinaigrette), possibly topped with an egg (fried, poached, hardboiled and sieved). Roasted or sauteed is good too.

This season I’ve added another asparagus preparation: batter-frying. I treated myself to a copy of Eric Ripert’s new cookbook, Vegetable Simple.

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It’s a large-format volume, and the photography is so gorgeous, it’s practically a coffee table book. Every recipe is faced by a full-page color portrait of the featured vegetable.

Ripert says simplicity is key to his goal of showcasing vegetables’ natural flavors and qualities. That’s admirable, but what a Michelin three-star restaurant chef regards as simple isn’t always what we lesser mortals do. Thus, for his asparagus tempura recipe, he:

  • makes the batter with sparkling water and Japanese flour (though he permits all-purpose with the addition of a bit of baking soda);
  • for the frying, adds sesame oil to his preferred rice-bran oil (though again, other vegetable oils are allowed); and
  • serves the dish with a dipping sauce made with soy sauce, mirin, and lime juice.

That’s pretty complex simplicity. My pantry doesn’t run to all those specialties, but I hoped I could achieve a reasonable approximation of the dish. Here’s what it looks like in the book:
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Interesting enough to attempt, at any rate.

With half a pound of my current bunch of asparagus, I immediately diverged from the recipe. Rather than peeling the spears, I just snapped off the tough ends. I sometimes peel really fat asparagus, but these were fairly slender.

I made the batter with (sorry!) all-purpose flour, baking soda, beaten egg, and (at least) ice-cold San Pellegrino sparkling water – leaving it lumpy, as Ripert directs.
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Before embarking on the frying, I made the dipping sauce. That was a big compromise. I had soy sauce, but I’ve never used mirin. This sweet rice wine is sold only in fairly large bottles, and I was going to need only half a tablespoon of it. Online research into substitutes produced the suggestion of sherry, with the addition of some sugar. I did have a bottle of sherry open, so that was what I used. But then I realized that I’d forgotten to buy the necessary lime. Aargh! It was too late to go out for one now, so I settled for lemon juice, also with some sugar.

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I doubt if Ripert would have approved of these makeshifts, but I didn’t know how the sauce was supposed to taste anyway, so it would have to do.

And then, on to the frying – which I did in corn oil (my regular choice when olive oil would be too strong), adding the required two tablespoons of sesame oil. The instructions were to “cook until the asparagus spears have floated to the surface and are no longer bubbling, about 2 minutes. They should be pale in color and very crisp.”

Mine didn’t quite behave that way. They floated immediately, bubbled constantly, and began browning in less than one minute.
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What to do? Preserve the pale crust and possibly undercook the asparagus? Get the asparagus tender and spoil the delicate crust? I needed to decide quickly, so I more or less split the difference. My asparagus spears didn’t come out looking anything like Ripert’s, but they seemed OK.
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And so they were. They were pleasantly al dente, the coating lightly crunchy. The dipping sauce was all right too, though it tasted pretty much like plain soy sauce. We couldn’t pick up any hint of that tiny bit of sesame oil.
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But all in all, it was an interesting experiment, and one that I may well try again. It’s hard to resist fresh local asparagus in its brief season.

 

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We eat a lot of noodles in our house. Most of the time they’re in the form of pasta, given our strong Italophile bent, but we’re also interested in what other nations do with the endlessly versatile flour paste. (Not the French, however: In our experience the French always overcook their nouilles.) Accordingly, I was happy, some years ago, to discover the book Asian Noodles by Nina Simonds.

Its recipes range widely – China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand – and Simonds also presents her own adaptations and improvisations, all with an eye to accessibility for the western cook. For instance, she freely accepts substituting fresh egg noodles or dried Italian pasta for any of the Asian rice or wheat noodle types specified in the recipes. That can certainly be handy, if you don’t keep an Asian-inflected pantry, and I’ve found the results always tasty, though often at the expense of the genuinely ethnic flavors.

The scallop dish I made this week turned out that way. The recipe is basically Japanese, but the way the ingredients are handled made it come out seeming to me more like a California creation.

It starts by having you make a cooked marinade of soy sauce, water, wine, sugar, minced fresh ginger, crushed red pepper, and cornstarch – fairly typical components of a teriyaki sauce. When the marinade has thickened from the cornstarch and cooled, you mix half of it with your sea scallops and let them sit for an hour.

Meanwhile, you’re thinly slicing a red bell pepper, parboiling broccoli florets and their thin-sliced stems, and cooking thin wheat noodles – “such as angel hair,” the recipe says, so I used Italian cappellini – until just tender. Here are all the components, waiting to be combined.

Then you thread the scallops on wooden skewers (previously soaked in water to keep them from burning up during the cooking) and broil the scallops very briefly, brushing with the remnant of their marinade. That’s all the cooking the scallops get, so now, unless you’re not the only cook at work in the kitchen, they have to be set aside to keep warm while you finish the dish. I found this timing a bit off-putting, because soggy scallops are not a joy.

The finishing is a simple stir-fry: sauté the peppers in oil, then the broccoli; add the other half of the marinade and then the cooked noodles. Here they all are in my beloved old wok.

This big, ugly, un-stainless steel workhorse has been with me for about 40 years, and it’s a wonder. Even though I use it maybe only four or five times a year, it always retains its seasoning and nothing ever sticks in it.

As soon as the stir-fry mixture was ready, I transferred it to a platter, poised the skewered scallops on top, and served it.

So how did it taste? Well, despite the recipe’s title, there was hardly any discernible ginger. Tom and I found it too sweet, but then we’re not really big fans of teriyaki sauce, and this one seemed to be dominated by the sugar – more than two teaspoons’ worth per portion. For us, the scallop, bell pepper, and broccoli flavors would have been naturally sweet enough on their own, and we’d have liked more ginger, more soy, and more red pepper flakes. Also, between the short broiling time and longish waiting time, the scallops were rather limp. (I suspect that the book’s photo of bright golden scallops with crunchy-looking brown edges owes something to a food stylist with a small blowtorch.)

As it was, we thought the dish would’ve been OK for a lunch, but as the main course of dinner it was slightly cloying. Nevertheless, sugar addiction being the American national disease, I’m sure many people would love it, just as it is. And in defense of Asian Noodles, I will say that I’ve had happier results with some of its other recipes.

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