This James Beard recipe is my new favorite way to cook asparagus

Sautéed slanted asparagus with pepper and almonds on a plate

There’s spring baby
photo: Claire Nieder

One thing I’ve enjoyed about owning a home is finding all sorts of plants—that I haven’t planted—growing around the property. One of those surprises is a bed of asparagus. It’s not a particularly productive asparagus bed, but it’s lovely. Three or four stalks emerge at a time, not enough for a meal but more than enough for entertaining.

I let the stems grow and sprout (I think that’s the term?) because a few people have told me to. Apparently if I leave them alone this year, more will come back next year. I hope that’s true, because I just found my new favorite way to cook asparagus, courtesy of a Portland icon.

Chef, food writer, teacher and famous Portlander James Beard was known for being uniquely American and for creating effective, flavorful dishes. Its soy sauce and buttered asparagus, that was adapted for Food52 by Eric Kim, is just that. Slices of asparagus are quickly simmered in a mixture of soy sauce and butter, coating them with a salty, rich glaze and softening the veggies’ grassy, ​​raw flavor.

It’s hardly a recipe, more of a method Kim found at the end of Beard’s 1964 memoir, joys and prejudices [method in bold]:

…when it’s in season, I’ll have asparagus, either quickly cooked soft but still crunchy—and with no embellishments other than salt and freshly ground black pepper—or Cut into wafer-thin diagonal slices and toss in a hot pan with the butter and soy for two or three minutes, which gives it a delicious texture.

“Paper thin diagonal slices” is a bit vague, so I decided to prepare the asparagus two ways and see which I liked better. I started with a little simple knife work, cutting about four ounces of stems at an angle to make thin, if not quite “paper-thin,” slices.

Asparagus sticks and slices on a wooden cutting board.

Asparagus sticks and slices on a wooden cutting board.
photo: Claire Nieder

For the second 4-ounce batch, I used a vegetable peeler to make really paper-thin slices, removing the tops first and leaving them whole.

Asparagus shavings and tips on a wooden cutting board with a vegetable peeler.

photo: Claire Nieder

I then cooked them in a hot cast iron skillet using Kim’s ratios for butter and sauce. However, I swapped the soy sauce for fish sauce because I like my veggies a little funky. I think that was a good move. I also garnished the dish with some toasted almonds because they look pretty and taste good.

Sauteed asparagus on a plate with slivers of almonds

photo: Claire Nieder

Of the two, I actually preferred the thicker, knife-cut asparagus slices. The asparagus I prepared with a vegetable peeler was too thin and turned soft, almost like wet noodles. It also absorbed too much of the sauce making it taste a touch too salty.

The thicker asparagus retained its fresh, crisp texture and soaked up just the right amount of fish sauce, resulting in a perfectly seasoned, perfectly tender-crunchy piece of spring greens. I will do it again (and again and again).

Fish Sauce and Buttered Asparagus (adapted from Eric Kim’s “A Very Good Line In joys and prejudices by James Beard.”)

Ingredients:

  • 8 ounces of asparagus
  • 2 tablespoons salted butter
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce (or soy sauce if you want to keep it classic)
  • Optional: Fresh pepper and/or toasted almonds

Slice the asparagus diagonally into thin slices about 1/4 inch (or thinner) thick. Heat a skillet over high heat (I used my cast iron) and add the butter. Once the butter Just begins to brown, add the asparagus and cook for a minute, stirring once or twice.

Add the fish sauce, stir again, and cook until asparagus is tender and crisp (take a small test bite), about 1 minute more.. Serve immediately and garnish with pepper and/or toasted almonds, if desired.

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