Spring vegetables are starting to come up in a more prevalent way in and around southern Ontario. On a late night/early morning trip to this place last week, I started noticing the big waxy boxes that read “Ontario Asparagus” on the side with the Foodland logo, shuffling their way through on big carts, palettes of lifting jacks, backs of trucks etc. There’s rhubarb, green garlic and wild leeks, little spring onions and lettuces, super fresh with minerality and an unmistakeable green-ness. It’s starting to really happen.
I find the recommended initial preparations of these first-of-the-season gems tend to be quite mild, soft and non-intrusive. All of the mags show the vegetables lightly blanched or maybe roasted with salt and pepper. Adorned with a poached egg, a whisper of parmesan, a couple chopped mint leaves, a delicate drizzle of olive oil. Not too much fuss. The overarching goal seems to be a genuine savouring of the earth’s first offering of the year, basking in its true nature. I am on board with that, trust.
After my initial taste of first-asparagus and that “oh wow” moment, when the sweetness hits, the shock of perfectly crisp-tender, fresh, vegetal perfection kicks in… I start to get a little bored with the usual steamed/roasted/grilled olive oil, salt, and pepper routine. I love simplicity when dealing with fresh food. It is gratifying in its unraveling of meal time, cutting to the chase of satiety. Sometimes I want to go in a different direction though. I’m in love with the prettiness of asparagus in long, elegant ribbons. The crisp sweetness and perfect potential for salads is right there so I went with it.
I made up a punchy vinaigrette with chili paste, lime, toasted sesame oil, ginger and garlic. Mega flavour town. Tossed it all up with the asparagus, some shredded cabbage, green onions, fresh mint and salty, crunchy peanuts. I know it seems like a lot going on for the tender, still-new asparagus but believe me, it can take the heat. The sweetness is all the more prevalent in this combination, the lime and heat from chili really bringing it to the forefront. The acid from the lime is strong without imparting too much flavour and the toasted sesame oil/peanut combo brings it all back to earth. It’s certainly a fresh and lively way to go forth into spring.
asparagus salad with sesame chili & lime dressing
notes: If you’re making this ahead, save the mint slicing and dressing-tossing for the end, right before serving. The acid in the dressing can render the thin asparagus less crisp and mint tends to go dark post-slicing.
1 small clove of garlic, minced
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and grated/minced finely
zest and juice of 1 lime
2 tsp chili paste
1 tbsp agave nectar or honey
1 tbsp rice vinegar
salt and pepper
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
2 tbsp grapeseed or other neutral oil
1 bunch asparagus, ends trimmed and stalks peeled into ribbons
small handful of grated cabbage (red, green, napa, savoy etc)
3 sprigs of mint, leaves removed and finely sliced
2-3 green onions, finely sliced
1/3 cup peanuts, toasted and roughly chopped
Make the dressing: combine the ginger, garlic, lime zest, lime juice, chili paste, agave nectar, rice vinegar, salt and pepper in a jar or tupperware dish with a tight fitting lid. Stir to dissolve the salt and combine everything. Add the sesame and grapeseed oils. Put a lid on top and shake mixture vigorously to combine. Set aside.
Combine the ribboned asparagus, cabbage, sliced mint and green onions in a large bowl. Pour the dressing over top and toss to combine with your hands or tongs. Place salad on a serving plate and garnish with the chopped peanuts and a bit more chopped mint if you like. Serve and enjoy.