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Stir-fried asparagus and tomatoes 番茄炒芦笋


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Spring means asparagus 芦笋 here in Yunnan. My neighborhood wet market has recently looked like the scene of an impromptu Kunming Asparagus Festival: Neat green stacks of them everywhere. Even saw white ones, raised underground in complete dark. For the next two or three weeks, quality will be high; prices will be low. Time to invite the “King of Vegetables 蔬菜之王” home to dinner. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.)


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You might be surprised to learn that China is far and away the world’s largest producer of this noble and nutritious vegetable. 7.84 million metric tons were grown in 2017, only about half of them destined for export to other parts of Asia. (Graph in a footnote below.) The rest find their way onto China’s dining tables. Even though asparagus somehow don’t seem quite “Chinese enough” to carry the flag overseas, they are quite popular here.



Today I combined them with vine-ripened cherry tomatoes 樱桃番茄, even though larger tomatoes would work just as well. I seized an unexpected opportunity: The vendor had priced them low to sell fast because she knew they would be mush by tomorrow if they stayed on her stand. I snapped up a kilo for 9 Yuan. Used a third of them in tonight's dish. 



It’s such a treat to able to find tomatoes that are grown in small batches, outdoors 露天。These beat the pants off ones that are farmed in huge volume inside large plastic domes 塑料大棚, picked green, shipped a long way in refrigerated trucks and then “quick-ripened” with ethylene gas.








My bunch of asparagus cost 12 Yuan. They weren’t much larger in diameter than a Number 2 pencil. Lower grades were available for less, but these caught my eye and won my heart. 


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To fix them, first snap off the woody base of the stalk. Don’t use a knife; that leads to waste. Discard these bits or freeze them to use later in a soup. Clip off the flowery tops and set them aside, since they take only seconds to cook. Cut the remaining stems into pieces an inch or inch and a half long. It’s traditional to do this on a bias 滚切, the argument being that this exposes more of the interior pith to the pan juices and lets them develop a richer flavor. 


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Blanch 焯 these stem segments in lightly salted water for 5 to 10 minutes. It improves the result if you squeeze half a small lime into the pot. The shorter blanching time is for thin stalks, the longer time for thick ones. Mine were tender enough at 6. Took them out with a large strainer and cooled them fast with cold water to stop the cooking process and keep them al dente.


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Ready to stir fry now. Last-minute check, like a pilot settling into the cockpit of his jet: tender asparagus tops in one bowl, blanched stems in another. Tomatoes cut in halves or thirds, finely-minced garlic 蒜蓉 and ginger  姜末, about a tablespoon of each. I used young ginger 生姜 for this instead of old ginger 老姜 because it has a gentler flavor. I used single-clove garlic 独蒜 instead of the standard kind 大蒜 for the same reason.


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A tablespoon of neutral oil such as corn oil 玉米油。Rapeseed oil 菜籽油, popular here, would not be the best choice because it imparts too much extraneous flavor. Spread it around with a folded paper kitchen towel or the back of a spoon while the pan is still cool. Go for medium heat, adding the ginger when the pan is ready 加热后。Give the garlic a few seconds head start, then sauté 煸炒 them both fast until they begin releasing their distinctive aroma. Don’t let them burn 不要炸糊。I usually lift and shake the pan with one hand while stirring with the other. 


Add the tomatoes plus a pinch of salt and stir briskly until they start breaking down and letting go of their juices. Chinese salt 食用盐 is often extra fine. I would suggest getting in the habit of literally using your fingers to add salt by the pinch to reduce the risk of using too much. Then put in the blanched asparagus stalks. Another pinch of salt follows these. (Salt early and often, but with a light hand. Don't just wait till the end.)


New ingredients go in the middle of the pan, as shown above. I’m using a flat bottom non-stick skillet 平地不粘煎锅 instead of my big wok because it fits the volume of the dish better. Medium heat throughout. Asparagus cook fast. Roman Emperor Augustus coined the phrase "faster than cooking asparagus" to describe quick surprise military action. 


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In go the tender asparagus tops. Splash in a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽 and a tablespoon of dark vinegar 老陈醋。Sprinkle in a small pinch of sugar 白砂糖 and a small pinch of MSG 味精。Another pinch of salt if you think it’s needed after tasting. Stir and flip to combine 翻炒。If you want to give your dish a professional touch, now is the time to add a splash of 水淀粉。This is a teaspoon of cornstarch mixed in a cup or small bowl with two or three tablespoons of water. It binds the flavors into a unified whole and thickens the sauce so that it will coat the vegetables better. Gives the finished product a “restaurant polish.”


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Plate it up along with a bowl of steamed rice. Bearing in mind that China doesn’t really distinguish between a side dish and a main, you can make this recipe more substantial by folding in a couple of tender scrambled eggs 炒鸡蛋 at the end. 


In the event that you are tired of eating out at Mr. Wang's Noodle Heaven, where everything comes to you loaded with salt, sugar, and MSG, swimming in mystery oil, consider making something simple like this at home instead. Inexpensive, quick, delicious. 


Footnote: Table of world asparagus production: (click to display)






Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/279556/global-top-asparagus-producing-countries/ 

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As someone fond of cooking with asparagus, I've learnt some interesting things here I'll have to try out soon:


14 hours ago, abcdefg said:

Clip off the flowery tops and set them aside, since they take only seconds to cook.

This had never occurred to me, I've just been chucking all mine in together at the same time.


14 hours ago, abcdefg said:

It’s traditional to do this on a bias 滚切, the argument being that this exposes more of the interior pith to the pan juices and lets them develop a richer flavor. 

OK.  I'll be doing it like this from now on.


14 hours ago, abcdefg said:

Blanch 焯 these stem segments in lightly salted water for 5 to 10 minutes.

I usually add a little water to the pan while I'm stir-frying them - then the green colour really comes out.

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On 5/12/2019 at 3:21 PM, somethingfunny said:

I usually add a little water to the pan while I'm stir-frying them - then the green colour really comes out.


Yes, that's a good trick. I sometimes do it that way, depending on what else is happening in the recipe. 


I usually just steam 蒸 them or boil 煮 them. Sometimes have them solo with garlic and ginger in a plain stir-fry 清炒芦笋。When I lived in the west, I sometimes had them as a salad 凉拌芦笋 with a light vinaigrette. Sometimes turned them into a velvety soup, served chilled as a first course.


If the stalks were thick, I peeled the main part of them. These today were so small that this step wasn't needed. 

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