WILD MOUNTAIN ASPARAGUS
WILD TREASURES OF SPRING
Just a few weeks into spring and asparagus had begun to appear in its wide variety of colors and sizes at the market. It is one those vegetables that you seek out at the farmer’s market because when it is freshly picked it is amazing to eat. Asparagus is now grown globally from Europe to Asia and South America. General markets don’t seem to be too fussy as to where they get theirs from. When you prioritize price then geographic origins no longer seem to matter. It seems strange to buy asparagus from Peru when the local farmer is picking his fresh everyday just a few kilometers away. We know fresh tastes better but if you only shop at the supermarket you might not know what fresh is.
Besides the domesticated white, purple and green asparagus varietals there is a wild version in both Europe and Japan that are completely different in appearance, taste and texture. In Tokyo one can take the train north to the mountains just an hour away and find a bountiful harvest of wild vegetables they call sansai. Spring Sansai off an incomparable array of flavors and textures that challenge the taste palette in ways domesticated vegetables do not. Untamed forest flavors range from bitter to sweet and floral to pungent. The treatment differs between them and a knowledge of traditional methods usually comes in handy when dealing with sansai.
Several weeks into spring we received a package from friends in Niigata who had sent us a wild “sansai” mountain vegetable called Youki sasa in Japan. It looked wild and tasted very unique – the closest thing to its taste is another wild plant foraged in British Columbia called Miners Lettuce.
PICKING MOUNTAIN ASPARAGUS
Youki sasa is part of the perennial lily family and prefers the moist and shady environment of northern mountains. The English translation of Youki sasa would be snow weed however we were told to call it Mountain Asparagus. It looks more like a lily although it has a taste reminiscent of fresh picked asparagus – when it is still sweet. It has large leaves like a lily an elegant stalk alternating between red violet and pearl white. Our mountain asparagus was sourced from Niigata, not far from Nagano and one of the most famous Artisan towns in all of Japan. It also produces legendary rice and sake appreciated by connoisseurs in Tokyo.
STORING MOUNTAIN ASPARAGUS
Once picked Mountain Asparagus store best in conditions similar to where they grow. This translates to cool, humid and shady. You can replicate this in your kitchen by wrapping the asparagus in newspaper that is slightly dampened. Wrap loosely so the plants can still breathe otherwise they will wilt and spoil quickly. Keep for no more than 3 days in the humid drawer of your refrigerator.
PREPARING MOUNTAIN ASPARAGUS
To prepare mountain asparagus fill a kitchen sink or wash basin with cold water. Add the mountain asparagus and with your hands mix slowly so the water splashes between the plants. Allow to rest 15-20 minutes so the sediment sinks to the bottom. With a strainer carefully scoop out the mountain asparagus and strain.
COOKING MOUNTAIN ASPARAGUS
When just picked Mountain Asparagus is sweet, crunchy and leafy which makes for an refreshing salad. A simple and quick preparation would be to cut the stems where they join the leaves so you have similar length asparagus parts. Quickly steaming the asparagus for 3-4 minutes turns the leaves a bright green color without losing nutrients into the water or diluting its taste. Alternatively pour boiling water over the leaves for 1-2 minutes then remove to ice water to stop it cooking.
Next mix a quick salad dressing and then mix together. These mountain asparagus have a special affinity for toasted sesame. You could also grate or julienne some orange carrot into the mix for added flavor, texture and color.