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

Fried asparagus cut diagonally with pepper and almonds on a plate

It gives spring, baby.
Photo: Claire Bass

One thing I’ve enjoyed about owning a home is finding all kinds 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 bed of asparagus, but it’s delicious. Three or four stalks sprout at a time, not enough for a meal, but more than enough for entertainment purposes.

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

Chef, food writer, teacher and famous Portland native, James Beard, was known for being uniquely American and preparing efficient and flavorful dishes. Its soy sauce and buttered asparagus, which have been suitable for Food52 by Eric Kim, is just that. Slices of asparagus are cooked quickly in a mixture of soy sauce and butter, coating them in a rich, salty glaze and tempering the herbal, raw flavor of the vegetable.

It is hardly a recipe, rather a method, the one that Kim found at the end of Beard’s memoir in 1964, Delights and prejudices [method in bold]:

…if it’s in season, I’ll have asparagus, either quickly boiled until tender but still crisp – and that with no embellishment except salt and freshly ground black pepper – or cut into paper thin diagonal slices and tossed with butter and soy for two or three minutes in a hot skillet, giving it a delicious texture.

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

Stems and slices of asparagus on a wooden cutting board.

Stems and slices of asparagus on a wooden cutting board.
Photo: Claire Bass

For the second batch of four ounces, I used a vegetable peeler to make really thin slices, removing the tips first and keeping them whole.

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

Photo: Claire Bass

I then cooked them in a hot cast iron skillet, using Kim’s ratios for butter and sauce. I substituted the soy sauce for fish sauce though, as I like my veggies to be a little funky. It was, in my opinion, a good decision. I also garnished the dish with some toasted almonds, as they look pretty and taste great.

Sautéed asparagus on a plate with slivered almonds

Photo: Claire Bass

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

The thicker asparagus retained its fresh, crunchy texture and absorbed just the right amount of fish sauce, resulting in a perfectly seasoned and perfectly tender bite of spring vegetable. I will do it again (and again, and again).

Fish Sauce and Buttered Asparagus (adapted from Eric Kim’s adaptation of “A Very Good Line in Delights 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 on the bias to make thin slices about 1/4 inch (or less) thick. Heat a skillet over high heat (I used my cast iron) and add the butter. Once the butter only begins to brown, add the asparagus and cook for a minute, stirring once or twice.

Add the fish sauce, mix again and cook for a few more minutes. Serve immediately and garnish with pepper and/or toasted almonds, if desired.

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