Asparagus Cooked Like Ferns
"NO FERN PICKING."
"FERN PICKING ALLOWED (WITH PERMIT)."
In springtime, in the mountains where I live, these signs are put up by the forest rangers along the main road, known as the Rim of the World Highway. Apparently, the Lake Arrowhead area of the San Bernardino Mountains is one of the few places where a particular variety of bracken fern flourishes annually. While this may not be important to you, it is of extreme significance to the Korean population of Southern California, for they consider these ferns to be a great culinary delicacy.
Only the top part with the most tender leaves is used. These ferns are often described as tasting a bit like asparagus, itself a delicacy in Western cultures, though not as rare. They do indeed have that same asparagus-artichoke type of flavor, but much more tender and subtle. The rangers charge $20 for a fern-picking permit and provide bags for harvesting. There is a 50-pound limit per permit. This may sound like a lot, but like spinach, these ferns collapse considerably when heated. It takes many pounds of ferns to make a meal, and that's why you never see just one Korean picking ferns.
On weekends, drive down the Rim of the World highway and you will encounter entire Korean families, their cars parked alongside the narrow road, vigilantly combing the hillside for ferns. It's rather sweet, for all generations participate in the fern harvest. The halmoni (grandmothers) dressed in casual chima-chogori, the traditional high-waisted, ankle length skirt and jacket, hold the hands of the youngest grand- and great grandchildren. The haraboji (grandfathers) don paji-chogori, loose pants gathered at the ankles, and stand military-like at the top of the hill, as if supervising the whole affair. Parents, aunties, uncles and cousins spread out under the clean, blue skies and warm sunshine, calling out to each other and laughing as they selectively cut off each succulent stem. It is most fun to watch the children, dressed not in traditional Korean garb but rather in American 'GAP' overalls, as they run madly about in all directions, free from the concrete constraints of Los Angeles' Koreatown.
Later, they all take a break under the scented pines and indulge in an afternoon picnic. Halmoni will have made pajon (thick griddle cakes cooked with green onions and vegetables), pungent radish kimchi, mondu (dumplings, similar to Chinese potstickers), hwajon (sweet rice cakes), and the aunties and cousins contribute namuls (spicy vegetables) and other Korean dishes. After lunch, haraboji and the other men folk lay back and snooze peacefully on soft beds of aromatic pine needles. In a way, the whole day is like a Norman Rockwell painting of Korean culture.
Since it is unlikely you will find these ferns in your area, I have adapted a traditional fern-cooking recipe for asparagus. Simple as it seems, you'll be surprised at the depth of flavor in this dish. You see, the sesame oil, when heated, produces a sweet flavor. Frying, then steaming, the asparagus in the sesame oil further brings out the natural sweetness and musty taste of the vegetable, and these flavors are finally reinforced by the sweet, mild taste of toasted pine nuts. I am very fond of this recipe, and use it frequently as a side dish or appetizer. I am sure you will enjoy it, even without using ferns.
(By the way, Koreans are big on pine nuts, also. But that is a story for another chapter.)
- 1 pound fresh asparagus
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1/4 cup chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts, coarsely chopped
Snap off the woody ends of the asparagus. Cut the stalks on the diagonal into 1-1/2 inch lengths.
Heat the sesame oil in a medium skillet or wok. Add the asparagus and stir-fry over high heat for 1 minute. Add the soy sauce and broth, then cover and simmer on low until crisp-tender, about 6 minutes.
Place the asparagus on a platter. Reduce the sauce, then pour on top and cover with a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts.
© 1998, Katherine Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This Archived Page created between 1994 and 2001. Modified August 2007