When asparagus first comes into season, it’s criminal not to make it the star of the meal.
As the season progresses, I will somewhat grudgingly include other ingredients on the plate — proteins, for example, like fillets of hake.
Hake and asparagus are not necessarily an intuitive combination: In fact, they’re practically a study in opposites. The fish is mild, pale, delicate and saline, while asparagus is forthright, grassy, verdant and earthy.
But served together, they balance each other, bringing out the best in both. The soft fish and crisp stalks — all cooked in butter — make for a fine weeknight meal that’s light, convenient and very fast.
The convenience comes from being able to cook everything in stages in one large skillet. The asparagus goes first. Give it a quick sauté while the seasonings have a chance to sink into the fish.
Then, the fish gets its buttery turn, accompanied by scallions that caramelize and sweeten. The thin hake fillets will be ready before the asparagus even has a chance to cool down — though tenting the stalks with foil will give you a little more time, or a chance to drink some of the wine you opened for dinner.
If you can’t get hake, use whatever mild fish fillets are available, adjusting the cooking time depending on their thickness.
For the purest of dishes, you could garnish with a few lemon wedges and stop right there. But, garlic lover that I am, I take things a step further with a simple homemade aioli. This particular recipe gives you a thin mixture, acting more like sauce than dip, adding richness without heaviness.
If you can get green garlic (often in season at the same time as asparagus), use that here in place of regular garlic. It’s got a milder, herbal taste compared with the classic pungency of aioli.But regular garlic is just as nice in its own assertive way.
Then drizzle it generously over asparagus and fish, and enjoy the way these two opposites can so happily share one plate.
Pan-Seared Hake and Asparagus With Aioli
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
For the aioli:
1 to 2 garlic cloves, finely grated or mashed to a paste, or use 1 tablespoon minced green garlic
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice, more to taste
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt, more to taste
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon or chives
For the hake and asparagus:
4 (6-ounce) hake fillets, patted dry
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, more as needed
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 pounds asparagus, woody ends trimmed, cut into 1 1/4-inch pieces
2 red or regular scallions, thinly sliced
1. Make the aioli: Combine garlic, lemon juice and salt in a blender or food processor, and let sit a minute or two. Add egg and yolk, and blend until combined. With the blender running, slowly add oil in a thin, steady stream. You’re looking for an emulsified mixture, but it will be on the thin, saucelike side. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt and lemon juice, if needed. Stir in tarragon.
2. Prepare the hake: Season hake with 3/4 teaspoon salt, pepper and paprika. Let sit while you cook the asparagus.
3. Make the asparagus: Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a 12-inch skillet over high heat. Stir in asparagus and a pinch of salt, and let cook without moving for 2 minutes to brown slightly. Add a tablespoon of water, cover and cook, shaking pan occasionally, until just tender, 2 to 5 minutes longer depending on thickness of stalks. Transfer to a plate and loosely tent with foil to keep warm.
4. Return skillet to medium heat, and melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Place hake in an even layer in skillet, then scatter in scallions. Cover and cook until golden, 3 to 4 minutes, then flip and cook uncovered about another 3 to 4 minutes, until hake is cooked through and lightly browned on both sides. Transfer hake and scallions to serving plates, and immediately drizzle with aioli to taste. Serve with asparagus.
And to Drink ...
With a mild white fish like hake, the key to selecting a wine is matching the accompaniments, in this case asparagus and aioli. Asparagus is routinely included among foods difficult to pair with wine. But I have found that asparagus does not so much clash with wine, as it is not enhanced by it. That leaves the rich, garlicky aioli, which requires a bottle with good acidity. You could easily serve this all with a very dry rosé, which would be lovely if you were sitting outside on a sunny day. I might prefer something with a little more character, like a dry riesling from Austria or Germany. A sweet yet balanced riesling, like a German spaetlese, could also be delicious. You might also try a Loire sauvignon blanc or an Austrian gruener veltliner.
— ERIC ASIMOV