Monday, May 17, 2010

Asparagus Soup, redux

Before I get to today's post, a brief announcement. Tomorrow is guest blogger day for the May Blogathon. Last year, I had the pleasure of swapping with Vera Marie Badertscher at A Traveler's Library. This year, I'm swapping with a blogathon alum--my buddy Lisa Peet over at Like Fire. I told Lisa to surprise me with her post, so I don't know what you'll find here tomorrow, but I, for one, am looking forward to it. And my post will be over there for the day, so please go visit! And now on to today's regularly scheduled post . . .

Today, I bought my first bundle of Hadley asparagus. If you don't live in Western Massachusetts, you might not know that the small town of Hadley (mostly known for the seemingly endless corridor of Route 9 that goes between Northampton and Amherst) is famous both for its soil--Hadley loam--and for the asparagus grown in that soil. Still, Hadley asparagus has gotten a decent amount of press, from articles in Saveur to Yankee Magazine to the Boston Globe. The Saveur article is particularly interesting--apparently, Hadley and the surrounding areas were one of the country's premier asparagus growing regions until the 1970s when a strain of Fusarium, a soil-borne fungus, decimated the crops. (Fusarium is what caused last summer's tomato blight as well.) On a more cheerful note, I also learned that Flayvors of Cook Farm, a local restaurant and ice cream place, makes asparagus ice cream every spring. I had no idea.

I've seen the occasional sign for local asparagus over the past week or two, but it wasn't until today, when I was driving the back way from Amherst that I saw the table outside a farm stand with bundles of asparagus standing in a shallow tray of water. I handed over my $4 and took a bundle home. It's going to be a couple of years (if all goes well) until I have a reliable crop from my own asparagus bed, so I feel lucky that I live so close to the former asparagus capital of the world. (Apparently, signs in Hadley used to say that. I'm not sure if any still exist.)

I didn't have to dither at all about what to make with my first bunch of Hadley asparagus; there was only one choice--the asparagus soup from the Greens cookbook (written by that soup genius, Deborah Madison). For me, this is really spring incarnate. What's especially lovely about the soup is that it has so few ingredients--asparagus, leeks, a potato, a bit of parsley, some lemon zest, a sprinkle of Parmesan if you want it. And that's basically it.

The other nice thing about it is that it uses all parts of the asparagus and the leeks. First, you make a stock out of the tough asparagus ends and the leek greens. Then, you saute the white part of the leeks and the middle section of the asparagus in some butter with a potato, if you'd like. You add the stock and boil until everything is just tender and still bright green. Then you puree it, add the lemon zest and Parmesan, and you're almost done. The final step is cooking the asparagus tips for a minute in boiling water and garnishing the soup with them.

I've made this soup several times already this season, but I feel like it doesn't really count since I used California asparagus. Today's soup was really the inauguration of local spring produce, a harbinger of the day soon to come when I will pick strawberries from my garden, strawberries a fraction of the size of the gargantuan ones from California that have been in the stores lately but that much more satisfying because I barely had to go anywhere to get them. Hadley isn't quite my backyard, but it's close enough.

I wrote about this recipe in the first weeks of this blog, but it's so good, and tis the season, after all, that it seemed worth repeating, and it's definitely worth making, whether or not you have Hadley asparagus at your disposal.

Asparagus Soup

Barely adapted from the Greens cookbook

The Stock

1 lb. thin asparagus, lower ends only

1 cup leek greens, roughly chopped

1 bay leaf

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

4 parsley branches

½ tsp. salt

8 cups cold water

Snap the lower ends off the asparagus where they break easily when bent. Rinse the ends well and roughly chop them into 1-inch pieces. Combine all the ingredients in a stock pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer 20-25 minutes. Strain.

The Soup

1 lb. thin asparagus (about 12 oz. after the ends are removed)

3 tbs. butter

2-3 leeks, white parts only (about 8 oz.), sliced

½ tsp. salt

1 large potato, peeled and cubed (optional)

1 tbs. parsley, chopped

5-7 cups stock

¼-1/2 cup light or heavy cream (optional)

Freshly ground pepper

½ to 1 tsp. grated lemon peel

Parmesan, grated, for garnish

Cut off the tips of the asparagus and set them aside. Roughly chop the stems into 1-inch pieces. Melt the butter in a soup pot. Add the leeks and cook them over medium-high heat for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring as needed. Add the asparagus stems, salt, potato (if using) and parsley. Pour in 5 cups of the stock and bring to a boil, then cook at a simmer until the asparagus are just tender, about 6 minutes. Blend the soup well, then work it through the fine screen of a food mill or through a chinoise to remove any fibers.

Return to the stove, stir in the cream, if using, and thin it with more stock, if necessary. Season to taste with salt, freshly ground black pepper and the lemon peel.

In another pot, bring a few cups of water to a boil with a little salt. Cook the asparagus tips, 1-2 minutes until they are done, then pour them into a colander.

Garnish the soup with Parmesan and a few asparagus tips in each bowl

A few notes:

It’s really worth it to make the stock, which give it an extra essence of asparagus.

I usually use the potato to thicken it a bit, but I’ve never added cream—it’s delicious as is and doesn’t really need it.

I usually use the zest of a whole lemon, partly because it’s easier than measuring and partly because it seems like a good amount.

I have strained it occasionally, but you don’t really have to if you’re not serving it at an elegant dinner.

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