Carpe diem — asparagus season is here! This is no time for beating around the bush(el). At Greenmarkets and farm stands, you’ll see plenty of sprue asparagus right now, too, the first tender shoots that are often as skinny as coffee stirrers. I had the rare pleasure of snapping a spindly green one straight from the soil at Sang Lee Farms last weekend, and eating it raw right then. (I’ll bet that anyone who claims not liking asparagus has never tasted something like this.) So to enjoy the sweetness and crisp bite of young asparagus, fresh from a local farm, it’s my edict that less cooking time is more. (It’s okay, you can run off to get some, rather than continue reading.)
I didn’t take off with all of Sang Lee’s stalks, mind you, so I picked up another bunch at the market in NYC. Of course, it wasn’t as fresh and ready-to-eat as the specimen I snacked on there, but I do detest the thought of breaking or peeling off nearly half the stalk in order to eat only the oh-so tenderest parts. This is Brooklyn, I can handle a little toughness.
Instead, I quickly blanched the stalks for less than a minute and shocked them in ice water, to stop the cooking. I’ve made many green salads with asparagus cooked in this fashion, and chopped. So I was looking for something a little different. I also wanted to add some protein in the form of delicate cubes of tofu. After banging around in my cabinets, popping open jars, and forgetting something I’d originally meant to use — some fresh mint — I eventually found myself at this strange crossroads of Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese elements. I’d come here again, any time.
There’s nothing like a cold noodle salad on a hot day, with light and refreshing flavors and a satisfying mix of textures. This one began with a pack of thin Thai rice noodles, often labeled “vermicelli” for its similar width to the Italian pasta. But whatever you do, don’t cook it like Italian pasta — these noodles need only be soaked in hot water less than ten minutes ’til they’re softened and ready to be drained. (Less cooking, again being more.)
Really, it was all about eating asparagus, this salad, despite all the various ingredients and cuisines kicking around. I didn’t want anything to overpower, or take away its spotlight. Firm tofu cubes (which are really quite soft, but holds its shape rather than silken), did well in this role. I’m sure the additions of nori flecks, or sriracha dots, can be forgotten unless you like them — or want to keep the salad less confused culturally. The simple vinaigrette had soy sauce, vinegar and a bit of sesame oil, which is a somewhat Chinese standard of mine, and never fails to hit the spot. A gentle splash throughout, and not much mixing, was all this needed in my estimation.
Here’s to spring, and stalking the markets for the best asparagus of the year. Now, if you’re still reading, here’s the recipe.
Asparagus and Tofu Cold Noodle Salad
(makes 3-4 servings)
1 small bunch thin asparagus, tough ends snapped off
1 8 oz. package thin “vermicelli” Thai rice noodles
2-3 scallions, chopped
about 4 oz. firm tofu (or more), cut to small cubes
2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
3 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 sheet nori seaweed, crumbled to small flakes (optional)
sriracha chili sauce (optional)
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and remove from heat. Submerge block of noodles fully underneath the water and let soak 5-6 minutes, until softened. Drain and let cool.
Bring another large pot of water to boil and prepare a large bowl of ice water. Drop the asparagus into the water and cook for about 3o seconds (depending on how thick the stalks are). Transfer immediately to the ice bath with tongs and let chill a minute or two. Chop the asparagus into inch-long spears.
Combine the soy sauce, sesame oil and rice vinegar in a small bowl. Once noodles are fully drained, place in a large bowl and top with the asparagus, scallions and tofu. Drizzle the sauce on top, and finish with optional seaweed and sriracha.
(for 3-4 servings)
1 bunch asparagus: $3.50
1 package rice noodles: $1.99
4 oz firm tofu: $1.00
3 scallions: $0.30
1 sheet nori: $0.20
soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, optional sriracha: $0.35
Two brownie points: Lightly-cooked aparagus are as healthy a vegetable as they come — enough to make one shake off that scare of green pee. Plus, this salad has almost zero fat, thanks to tofu for the protein, and the marginal use of sesame oil. You’ll notice that it tastes like it, too — light, and with a hint of nuttiness. It does, however, have a fair share of sodium from the nori and soy sauce. Go as easy on both as you please, it’s all up to your palate.
While the star ingredient, asparagus, was grown locally, rice noodles have yet to make much of an appearance at the Greenmarkets. Though I’m not sure just how or where the tofu was made, it’s a plant-based protein, cheap and plentiful, and it doesn’t cost the environment the kind of toll of meat.