SIGHTING the first asparagus truly marks the first day of spring. What a delight it is to see those first pencil-thin stalks appearing in the garden and in markets.
Then comes the time of deciding what to make - asparagus soup, a souffle, an omelet, or spears with a lemony Hollandaise.
Somehow the first asparagus of the season tastes best served pure and simple, with just a little butter and salt.
Later in the season, when asparagus is more plentiful and less expensive, it's time to try new and different recipes.
This is when I like to cook two particular Chinese recipes. In one, the chicken is steamed, a method that helps preserve the natural delicacy of the ingredients.
This dish has pleasantly contrasting textures and flavors, and the rice flour forms a velvety coating around the meaty chicken pieces. The asparagus retains its bright emerald green color and has a crisp bite.
Asparagus with beef and black beans is a more assertive Chinese dish. The tangy black beans and garlic accentuate the natural sweetness of the asparagus.
Black beans are fermented and usually preserved in salt. Some are slightly seasoned with orange peel and ginger, and these, too, are nice to use. The aroma of black beans may seem strong, but a small amount will add a lot of flavor to a dish. Before using them rinse off the salt. They will keep a year in a tightly sealed container.
If you haven't cooked with black beans, they may seem like an unusual ingredient, but the beans and the rice flour are available in many large supermarkets, as well as in Oriental food shops and some natural foods stores. Steamed Chicken with Asparagus 1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast 1 tablespoon light soy sauce 1 teaspoon sugar 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger 1 tablespoon water 1/4 cup brown rice flour or cornstarch 1 1/4 pounds asparagus 1/2 teaspoon salt
Cut chicken into pieces about 1 1/2 inches by 1 inch. Combine and mix with soy sauce, sugar, ginger, and water. Marinate 1 hour. Drain off liquid.
Toss the chicken in rice flour to coat thoroughly.
Trim off tough parts of asparagus. Slice diagonally into 1-inch pieces.
Place asparagus in a heat-proof dish that fits inside a large kettle or wok. Sprinkle with salt. Place chicken pieces on top of asparagus, arranging chicken in and around the asparagus tips. Sprinkle with salt.
In a large kettle or wok with a rack, add 1 inch water. Bring to a boil. Set plate of chicken on rack, cover, and steam 5 minutes.
Taste chicken to see if it is done. Steam penetrates food quickly. Do not overcook or it will be dry and tough. At most it will take 10 minutes to cook.
Serves 4 to 6 . Asparagus with Beef and Black Beans 1/2 pound boneless round beef 3 tablespoons oil 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce 1/2 teaspoon Chinese sesame oil 1 tablespoon water 1 pound asparagus 3 tablespoons fermented black beans 1 tablespoon minced garlic 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger 1/2 cup water 1/2 teaspoon salt
Slice beef into strips 1/8-inch thick, 1/2-inch wide, and 1 1/2-inches long. Marinate 30 minutes in 1 tablespoon oil, soy sauce, sesame oil, and 1 tablespoon water.
Slice asparagus into 1/4-inch pieces except for tips. Rinse black beans and mash with minced garlic.
Heat wok or heavy skillet over high heat. Spread with 1 tablespoon of oil. Add beef, stir-fry 30 seconds, remove to a plate.
Over high heat, add another tablespoon of oil, black beans, garlic, and ginger. Stir-fry 30 seconds. Add asparagus and stir-fry 30 seconds. Stir in 1/2 cup water and salt.
Lower heat, cook 2 minutes, add beef and heat. Serves 2 to 4 .