There is nothing quite like the revolving seasonality of fresh produce that I have experienced while living and working in France over the past three years. Sure, you can find staples year-round at the supermarket, but in my opinion, the true integrity and flavour of an ingredient only really shines through when it comes into season naturally.
In Paris, asparagus season has easily become one of my favourites. Nearing the end of February you begin to hear whisperings of its arrival while, gradually, photos of it start to take over social media. Chefs race to get it on the menu, initial harvests selling for upwards of €30 per kilo. Lucky for us, the price inevitably goes down as more and more white and green shoots make their debut in the markets. I prefer to eat them lightly blanched so that they retain their bright green colouring and fresh crunchy bite. Here, I mix them with roquette and drown them in a homemade hoisin vinaigrette. A touch of feta and a healthy dose of seeds and nuts for crunch give this dish a slight Mediterranean connection, resulting in a playful umami-driven mix that seems to be coming up a lot in my cooking these days.
Five spice mix, although usually readily available at your local market, is easily made at home, and is worth the effort as it truly makes this vinaigrette sing. Timut pepper, originally from Nepal, has the cold spiciness of a Sichuan peppercorn with an added hint of citrus, like grapefruit. Feel free to substitute the latter if you aren't able to find it. You'll be left with more dressing than you need, but it keeps well and is delicious; I promise you won't be disappointed to have a little leftover.
1 bunch green asparagus, medium-sized, trimmed and washed
1 500-gram bag Roquette, washed and spun dry
3 tablespoons feta, crumbled
½ to ¾ cup shaved almonds, toasted
¹/³ cup sesame seeds, toasted
2 tablespoons whole fennel seeds
1 tablespoon Timut peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole cloves
2 tablespoons whole star anise
2 tablespoons cinnamon powder
1 tablespoon tahini
1 teaspoon five-spice mix
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
½ cup Korean miso paste
¼ cup water
¹/³ cup honey
1 clove garlic, microplaned
1 shallot, finely diced
1 lemon, juiced and zested
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon smooth Dijon mustard
1 lemon, juiced
2 tablespoons honey
½ cup olive oil
1 pinch each fleur de sel and freshly ground black pepper
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Prepare a medium-sized bowl of ice water and set next to the stove. Blanch the asparagus 2-4 minutes, depending on size and desired degree of doneness.
Strain over the sink and place them immediately into the ice bath to cool completely. This will stop the cooking process and help maintain not only their delightful crunchiness, but also their vivid green colour.
Once cooled, strain well. Cut each spear into three pieces.
Toast the fennel seeds and Timut peppercorns together in a frying pan over medium-low heat until fragrant. Remove from heat and mix with cloves and star anise.
Grind the mix into a powder using a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. Stir in the cinnamon.
There will be more mix than needed to make this recipe. Save the extra for later use in an air-tight jar on the spice shelf.
Add all hoisin ingredients to a small pot. Whisk together and heat over medium low, stirring often, until thickened (approximately 5 to 10 minutes). Bubbles will gently start to rise to the surface and the colour of the mixture will start to darken slightly.
Set aside to cool.
In a medium-sized bowl, combine all the ingredients for the basic vinaigrette and vigorously whisk together.
Add the entirety of the cooled hoisin mixture, whisking to emulsify.
Store in the fridge until serving the salad. It will keep for up to one week.
To assemble, toss the asparagus with the roquette and some of the dressing. You won’t need all of the vinaigrette, so mix and taste as you go.
Divide the salad into four bowls and sprinkle evenly with the feta, followed by the almonds and sesame seeds. Serve immediately.