Back in March, Jackie and I were on vacation in Spain, eating tiny new-season peas from Catalunya. We got back to New York to find nothing remotely springlike in the farmers’ markets and resigned ourselves to a period of eating root vegetables as though it were February. Then just a couple of weeks ago ramps appeared, and the first asparagus materialized – initially from a single grower at our little neighborhood market, then a few days later the big market at Union Square had become Asparagus Central.
So, yes, we’ve been eating asparagus. Plain – cold with vinaigrette; hot with poached eggs – and then, when the novelty wore thin, as a normal ingredient, for instance, combined with potatoes as a calzone filling. One of the nicest dishes we served during this period – which I liken to a holding pattern until the peas arrive – also used asparagus and potatoes, along with simply cooked fish. Indeed, the whole dish is fairly simple and has the advantage that (apart from finishing touches and pan-frying the fish, which in this case was sea bass but which could be just about any fin-fish that looks nice and fresh in the market or fish store) it can be made a good hour ahead of time, though it doesn’t actually benefit from pre-cooking.
The pan-fried fish is set atop an asparagus and potato hash brightened at the last minute with lemon and fresh herbs. I recommend a mixture of parsley, dill and mint; another good addition is tarragon, if you can find any that has any flavor. You could, indeed, use a single herb – any of those in my mixture would be fine on its own.
In a reduced portion, this would make a light and elegant first course. As a main dish it’s still light, and it’s still elegant.
Prepare the vegetables: peel the potatoes. If you are using a fingerling variety, cut them into 3/8-inch discs; otherwise cut them into 3/8-inch dice. Rinse and drain well.
Quarter the leek lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces. Rinse and drain well.
Remove the tips from the asparagus, along with an inch or so of the tenderest portion of the stalks. Rinse carefully (the tips can harbor grit) and drain. Using a vegetable peeler, peel the rest of the stalks and cut into 3/8-inch discs – discarding any irremediably tough parts at the end. Rinse and drain. Keep the tips separate from the peeled discs; you can halve them if they’re larger than bite-size.
Wash the herbs and roll in a towel (or paper toweling) to dry; chop fairly fine and reserve. If you are cooking the vegetables in advance, do not chop the herbs until a few minutes before you need them – about the time you cook the fish.
In a 10-inch skillet (preferably non-stick because of the potatoes’ tendency to adhere to the pan) over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil (or butter); add the leeks and a little salt. Cook until they are just starting to shed their rawness, a minute or less.
Add the potatoes and a little more salt, toss or stir to combine, cover the pan and cook over fairly low heat until the potatoes are nearly done; they should not brown. This could take 12 minutes or more, depending on heat and on the size and density of the potato variety you’re using; start checking after 8 minutes.
(At this point you can set everything aside until ten minutes before you want to eat.)
Reheat the potato mixture if necessary. Meanwhile remove the fish from the refrigerator, pat it dry and reserve.
Add the asparagus stalks to the potatoes along with the chicken stock. Simmer for a minute; check that they’re cooked but slightly crunchy. Add the asparagus tips and cook for another 30 seconds, or until warmed through (which is about all the cooking they need in this dish). If necessary, add a little more stock: you need at least two tablespoons of sauce per portion.
Salt the fish generously and cook it over medium-high heat in a large non-stick skillet in which you’ve heated enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Start on the skin side and cook until the skin is crisp and the flesh side feels slightly warm to the touch; flip them, turn off the heat and leave them in the pan until needed, a minute or two later. Adjust cooking times to the size of your portions; my very small fillets took two or three minutes on the skin side.
Meanwhile, add the lemon juice to the vegetable mixture, swirl in the tablespoon of butter if using, check again for seasoning (the lemon juice will alter the balance), and add the chopped herbs.
Divide the vegetable mixture and sauce among four heated dinner plates and top each portion with a piece of fish, skin side up.