Sesame seeds (Recipe: asparagus in miso sauce)
If you read about The Perfect Pantry in the Washington Post, and this is your first visit, welcome. This blog looks at what a professional food writer (me!) keeps in her refrigerator, freezer, cupboards and spice rack -- with a recipe for each item -- and the 23 things I absolutely, positively, have to have in my pantry.
Two things I don't usually do:
I don't usually write about an ingredient in The Perfect Pantry just because I have a new kitchen toy -- oops, tool -- to show you, even when it is an adorable red Japanese sesame seed grinder that looks a little bit like a Mummenschanz crossed with a Tinkertoy.
And, I don't usually give advice about love and relationships and dating and all that.
I don't. Usually. Except today.
Today, I am going to tell you how to choose your life partner.
Forget sense of humor, shared values, attraction, responsibility, respect.
What's really important is to find someone who understands that you (yes, you, and me, too) cannot have too many tools/ingredients/pots/bowls. That when your pantry grows to more than 200 items, the right thing to do is to build more shelves.
That when he is in New York City on business, and you email to him about a neat housewares store in SoHo, he should know instinctively that you are not just being chatty, that the right thing to do is to go to the store and purchase a few surprises for your kitchen, including a little red sesame seed grinder.
That is the person you want to live with forever and ever, the person for whom you will make Asian cabbage salad and fish sticks, peanut sesame noodles and saffron bread, peanut butter-black sesame cupcakes and zahtar plantains. And of course you will make tahini from scratch. (It will take forever and ever to do it with your little red sesame seed grinder, so use a food processor. Go ahead. The love of your life will not mind one bit.)
While you are cooking, you can tell your forever person so many interesting things about sesame seeds, which come from a flowering annual plant grown in India, China, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mexico, and the southwestern US. In addition to a nutty flavor and crunch, sesame seeds also contribute to good health. They are a source of manganese and copper, as well as calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorous, vitamin B1 and zinc. Plus, they're packed with sesamin and sesamolin, two beneficial fibers that may help lower cholesterol and control blood pressure.
You might mention that in the local Asian market, a 24-ounce bag of tan, black or white seeds sells for just $2.79, and that because sesame seeds are approximately 50 percent oil by weight, and tend to get rancid after a few months, they should be stored in the refrigerator.
Then, you can toast a few seeds in a dry frying pan for just a minute or two, to bring out the flavor, and sprinkle them on summer salads, noodle dishes, or a bowl of yogurt and fruit.
Or turn them into a sweet halvah, for the forever person who brought home the little red grinder.
Asparagus in miso sauce
I can't resist a cookbook with mouthwatering photos, so when I saw Sur La Table's new Things Cooks Love, by Marie Simmons, on sale at Costco, I had to have it. The instructions for this dish call for grinding the sauce in a suribachi, but if you don't have one, use a mortar and pestle, or a cute Japanese grinding gizmo and a food processor. Perfect for the asparagus just coming into season here in Rhode Island, this recipe, slightly adapted from the book, serves 4, and can be doubled easily.
1 tsp tan or black sesame seeds
1 lb medium-width or fat asparagus, stems trimmed
1 Tbsp coarse sea salt
For the miso-sesame sauce:
2 Tbsp tan sesame seeds
2 Tbsp shiro (white) miso
3 Tbsp unseasoned rice vinegar
In a small, dry, nonstick frying pan, toast 1 tsp sesame seeds for 2 minutes over low heat, just until the seeds begin to brown slightly. Pour the seeds into a small bowl, and set aside for garnish.
Trim the woody ends of the asparagus and, if the spears are fat, use a vegetable peeler to remove some of the scales from the lower half.
Fill a large bowl with 2 quarts of water and a tray's worth of ice cubes, and set aside.
Fill a large saucepan with 2-3 quarts of water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the asparagus and sea salt, and cook for 2-3 minutes, depending on the size of the spears, until they are crisp-tender. Remove the asparagus with a spider or slotted spoon, and toss the spears into the bowl of ice water (this stops the cooking and sets the color). After 5 minutes, remove the asparagus and drain on a clean dish towel.
Make the sauce: Grind 2 Tbsp of sesame seeds in a cute little grinder gizmo, spice mill, or mortar and pestle. If using a mortar, add the miso and rice vinegar, a little at a time, and blend well. (Or you can toss it all into a mini food processor and blend to a nice consistency.)
Arrange the asparagus on a serving platter, and drizzle the sauce across the top. Garnish with the toasted sesame seeds, and serve chilled or at room temperature.