It’s spring. Which means spring vegetables! At last.
Lately, we’ve been dreaming about one that’s long, green and early-arriving.
No, we’re not talking about ramps, the wild spring onion that has taken on cult status among the farmers market set.
Right now, we’re all about asparagus, the slender stalks that many of us love but many of us often overcook or underplay. So for our annual sous-chef battle, in which we invite three contenders to face off over a particular ingredient, asparagus was the ingredient of choice.
“It’s definitely a vegetable that gets mistreated a lot,” said Faiz Ally, executive sous-chef at Victor Albisu’s downtown Del Campo. He grew up in Tennessee, where he said you typically see asparagus on the side of a steak, served soggy. “Nobody wants to eat that.”
“Can I say I want to Make Asparagus Great Again?” he added.
After winning last year’s savory rhubarb challenge, Ally, 27, was back to defend his title against Maureen Quinn, 34, of Rob Weland’s Garrison on Barracks Row, and Nyi Nyi Myint, 40, Tim Ma’s “right-hand man” at the new Kyirisan in Shaw, who, ahem, turned out to technically be more chef de cuisine than sous-chef. Sous-chefs are the second-in-command (typically to the executive chef or chef de cuisine) in a restaurant kitchen, and, like the vegetable we tasked them with cooking, we wanted to give them a little time in the spotlight, too.
The chefs had rules to follow: Their recipes were limited to six ingredients, not including salt and pepper; they had to be doable for home cooks; and the dishes had to be prepared within an hour. The trio met for competition downtown at the CulinAerie cooking school, whose co-founder Susan Holt joined a judging panel of Food section staffers. Dishes were scored for taste, appearance, originality and overall success.
We set the timer on our watch (the one you wear on your wrist, so old-fashioned) and let ’em rip.
Within seconds, the kitchen was a whirl of activity. Myint, sporting bad-ass black prep gloves, rapidly shaved strips of asparagus with a vegetable peeler. And, like a pitcher preparing to retake the mound, he tossed himself a shallot that he had grilled along with huge, head-on shrimp and asparagus to form the finely chopped salad portion of his Prawn Asparagus Salad With Duck Breast.
Meanwhile, Ally thinly sliced Meyer lemons on a brand-new mandoline, admitting to being a bit “terrified” of a tool he almost never uses.
Some of us are, too, Faiz.
Quinn looked calm, cool and collected as she quickly chopped her way through a bunch of the biggest spring onions we’ve seen, with delicate white flowers still attached to the stems.
Whether it’s during dinner service or a competition, “you always work fast,” Quinn said, unless you’re making something totally new — which she and the other two were doing, to a certain extent. The chefs had a few weeks to come up with their recipes and, of course, test and tweak them on their own time.
All three competitors expressed a longtime affinity for asparagus. Quinn said she grew up eating it in Bethesda, most often blanched and served with lemon juice and butter. Ally is a fan of it raw, because it can stand up to other strong flavors, such as shellfish and citrus.
Myint, who likes to grill the spears but ate asparagus in curries and other dishes his mom made back home in Burma, agreed that fighting bold with bold is a good strategy with the spring vegetable, which is one reason his initial thought was to do a very spicy salad for the challenge. And while his entry incorporated garlic chili oil, the strong flavors he settled on were lime (counterbalanced with duck fat) and seafood. He mixed in some white asparagus for its color and milder flavor.
The ingredient limit caused the returning champ to get particularly creative about how to get the most use out of each component.
His Charred Baby Calamari and Asparagus used the green spears four ways, in a recipe that had at least 20 steps: in a parsley-based chimichurri sauce; in a puree along with spring onions, more parsley and olive oil; and as a garnish in both raw (shaved) and charred forms. Procured from Ivy City Smokehouse in Northeast, the tiny squid were barely the size of Ally’s fingertips. They, too, pulled double duty, incorporated raw into the puree (used instead of garlic for some savory kapow) and charred — they like charred at Del Campo — and stirred into the chimichurri for the completed dish.
Myint’s entry used the root ends of some of the asparagus to create a bright green puree as well. Other stalks were used as shavings in his salad and as a garnish. He seasoned the salad with lime juice, salt, pepper, garlic chili oil and a little rendered fat from the duck breast he thinly sliced for the final presentation.
Quinn put lightly charred asparagus front and center in her Grilled Asparagus With Warm Spring Onion and Morel Vinaigrette. She doubled down on two of her other ingredients — those tender spring onions and earthy morel mushrooms, both of which went into the dressing, the latter punched up with champagne vinegar, and into a puree, mellowed with a generous dose of heavy cream.
Myint finished plating his dish with about 15 minutes to spare. Quinn completed hers next, with a few minutes left on the clock. We had to call time on Ally — and nothing seemed to suffer as a result.
In the end, the judges selected Quinn as the asparagus champion, closely followed by Ally and then Myint. Quinn’s dish earned plaudits for its simplicity, flower-strewn elegance, balance of flavors and textures, and for producing spears that were tender yet still somewhat crunchy. The judges looked at that dish, which would fit in perfectly on Garrison’s vegetable-forward menu, and knew we were eating asparagus. We loved that about it, and we kept going back to the plates she prepared for us after the scores were in.
Unlike “Top Chef,” this competition gives no cash, no sponsor-driven kitchen makeover for winning this challenge. Quinn received bragging rights and the honor of a recipe published in The Post.
“I think most people do actually like asparagus,” Quinn said.
Make it her way, and you might find it hard to disagree.
More from Food: