Creamy Asparagus Soup with Two Garnishes

food-blog-march-2017-0391As it turns out, when you start to conceive a soup for March, there are a number of things to think about. Which half – the “in like a lion” or the “out like a lamb” part – do you capture? Do you take into account Punxsutawney Phil’s ominous scrabblings, or do you celebrate the early vestiges of the spring you feel coming? Do you blitz together creamy, lingering winter flavors, or do you fly light and bright and vegetal, in hopes of what might be just over the horizon?

food-blog-march-2017-0390If you’re me, you mull, you consider, you scribble, and then you try to do all of the above. For some people (read: east coast food snobs foodies), the emergence of ramps is the harbinger of spring. For me, it’s asparagus. I like the image of the little fern-like tops pushing their way up out of the cold ground, extending into bold, fat, turgid stalks. It’s not the likeliest vegetable to put into a soup, but it’s such a welcome green flavor that I wanted to celebrate it. The grassy character of asparagus got me thinking about cream of celery soup, one of those condensed classics that I’ve never actually eaten from a bowl, but have seen on any number of casserole recipes right up there with its gloopy mushroom cousin.

food-blog-march-2017-0376Cream of asparagus soup sounded comforting and easy, but what really got me excited was the prospect of garnishing it. A few Christmases ago, one of our appetizer options was wrapped asparagus: one set lovingly encased in wafer-thin strips of prosciutto; the other bundled into swaths of smoked salmon. And combining my childhood recollection of crackers crushed into soup for texture and the number of smoked salmon Caesar salads with homemade croutons we’ve had lately, my soup toppings seemed set. The prosciutto would be crisped in the oven and float tantalizingly on the creamy surface, and the salmon would be piled right in the middle for a treasure chest you could drag your spoon through on its way to a rubble of crouton.

food-blog-march-2017-0369Of course you wouldn’t eat the soup with both garnishes – prosciutto and smoked salmon (although, for the purposes of photographing each we did, in fact, have both), but two toppings seemed like a nice option to give you. I’ll be honest: we liked the salmon best, and definitely dug the croutons, but the prosciutto does go well with the soup’s flavor profile.

food-blog-march-2017-0365This was delicious – creamy and comforting – but the real excitement came when we sat down to eat it. I turned the heat on our gas stove down to low in case we wanted seconds, finished my photo session, toppings arranged just so, and brought two steaming bowls over to the couch where we were set to embark on a thrilling Friday night: soup and a British murder mystery, and no sooner had the ominous intro music begun to play than the power went out. We sat, we waited a few moments, we relocated to the table and lit a few candles, and then we ate soup in the semi-darkness, with the wind outside ripping down branches and the rain sheeting over the roof (we’re still in Los Angeles, right?), and were pleased to be indoors, with gas heat, and warm soup, and the whole weekend still to come.

food-blog-march-2017-0380A few notes: if you want the excitement of finding asparagus tips threaded through the smoothness of your soup, you can, as we did, leave them aside until after you puree. If you don’t want the disruption, add them along with the stalks and blend away.

However you choose to puree the soup – handheld or regular blender – be sure to be thorough. Unexpected snippets of leek or onion mar our velvet intentions and need to be blitzed into oblivion.

Be sure to cook the croutons until they are quite crisp. I like a salad crouton with a tiny bit of chewy give in the center, but here, the soup soaks in and the cubes need to be fully dry to avoid turning to instant mush.

food-blog-march-2017-0401

Creamy Asparagus Soup with Two Garnishes
Adapted from Jamie at Home
Serves 4
About 45 minutes
For the soup:
4 tablespoons butter
1½ cups diced white onion (1 medium or ½ large)
1 leek, white and pale green parts only, halved, cleaned, and thinly sliced
2 stalks celery, cleaned, thinly sliced
1½-2 pounds asparagus, woody ends snapped off, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 quart water (4 cups) (you could use broth here, but I wanted to keep the flavors veg-central)
salt and pepper to taste
¼-½ cup heavy cream
1-2 teaspoons lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons chives, very thinly sliced
For the prosciutto garnish:
4 slices prosciutto
For the salmon and crouton garnish:
3 cups ½-inch sourdough bread cubes, cut from about ⅓ of a large loaf or batard
4 cloves garlic, minced, or ¾ teaspoon garlic powder
zest from one lemon
½ teaspoon black pepper
¾ teaspoon salt
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces smoked salmon

 

  • In a large pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion, leek, and celery pieces and turn the heat down to medium low. Sweat the vegetables for about 10 minutes – we are looking for tenderness, not for color. If they begin to brown, turn down the heat.
  • While the vegetables are cooking, begin work on your garnishes – see instructions below.
  • When the vegetables are tender and the onion pieces have become translucent, add the water and the asparagus stalks, reserving the tips if desired. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to keep the liquid at a bare simmer for about 20 minutes, until the asparagus pieces are tender.
  • Blend extremely well using a handheld or a standard blender – you are looking for a completely smooth mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • If you have reserved the asparagus tips, add them now and simmer just until they are tender, about 5 minutes.
  • Pull the pot off of the heat, add the cream and stir, then return to low heat, add lemon juice and chives, and warm through.
  • To make the prosciutto garnish, while the onion, leek, and celery are cooking, preheat the oven to 300F and spread out 4 pieces of prosciutto on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Bake at 300F for 20-25 minutes, until they are crisp enough to shatter.
  • Set aside until soup is ready and serve balanced on the edge of the bowl, crumbled over the soup, or with one end immersed for drama, as above. Eat immediately; it will not remain crisp for long once it hits the hot liquid.
  • To make the crouton and salmon garnish, while the onion, leek, and celery are cooking, preheat the oven to 300F. In a large bowl, whisk together the minced garlic or garlic powder, the lemon zest, the salt, and the pepper. Add the sourdough cubes and toss well to combine.
  • Spread the seasoned bread cubes out on a baking tray and toast in the 300F oven for 20-25 minutes, until they are thoroughly dried inside.
  • While the cubes toast and the soup simmers, unwrap the smoked salmon and use two forks, back to back, pulling away from each other, to shred it up.
  • To serve, after ladling in a serving of soup, place a small mound of the smoked salmon in the center of the bowl, then place a handful of croutons over the top. As you can see, for aesthetic purposes I piled mine to the side, but you can put them right in the middle if you wish. Eat immediately.
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Spring Green Risotto with Poached Egg and Lemon Garlic Breadcrumbs

2016 Food Blog March-0614My warmest memory of risotto – and the one that probably says the most about me as a person and as the graduate student that I was – is one wintery evening in Oregon, when I was making risotto while preparing for class. This seems counterintuitive, I know. It is. One cannot truly invest in either the stirring required for risotto or the note-jotting, powerpoint slideshow constructing, or annotating usually needed for quality lesson prep. One can, however, position one’s hand just so to hold up and keep open a paperback book in one hand, while leaving the other hand free for a wooden spoon.

2016 Food Blog March-05952016 Food Blog March-0597The house was cold that night, and I was frantically reading Beowulf in preparation for a lecture the next day in a class for which I was a teaching assistant. Stir, read. Stir, read. Slow, random swipes through the pan, as I drowned myself in Beowulf’s deeds. I probably didn’t get much out of that reading session, but the combination is stuck: warm, creamy rice, and poor Beo fighting against demons of darkness, and of his own overweening.

2016 Food Blog March-06002016 Food Blog March-0602I’ve complained about risotto before, and it’s true that I often find it underwhelming. But when you combine its warm, melting heartiness against the brightness of spring vegetables, and when you declare that decadence befits a spring break that finally arrived – so you give yourself a week off from blogging because SPRING BREAK, people! – and then you layer on a poached egg and a shower of crispy crumbs shot through with garlic and lemon zest, you have a risotto that I’ll put down my book for.

2016 Food Blog March-0611This one features leeks – my favorite, and sadly so underrated, member of the onion family – as well as slim fingers of asparagus, barely wilted spinach leaves, and a rubble of peas stirred in at the last minute. There’s a generous shower of parmesan cheese at the end, and the egg yolk, still oozy but just thickened, forms its own rich, golden sauce for the risotto when you slide your fork down through it. Risotto isn’t difficult, but it is a bit co-dependent: it requires your presence in the kitchen throughout the process. Still, though, if you are organized and get all of your vegetables prepared while the broth is heating, you can have the whole thing done in less than an hour. What’s that? Two entries in a row with reasonable time spans? Happy spring, my friends.

2016 Food Blog March-0615

Spring Green Risotto with Poached Egg and Lemon Garlic Crumbs
Serves 6-8
30-45 minutes
6 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 large leeks, sliced into thin ribbons as described below
4 finely minced garlic cloves, divided
2 cups short or medium grain rice
½ cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper, black or white
2 1-2 inch sprigs fresh thyme
1 pound slender asparagus spears, woody ends snapped off, spears cut into two inch pieces
1 cup frozen peas
4 ounces baby spinach
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
6-8 eggs (as many as people you are serving)
1 teaspoon white vinegar, for poaching
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
zest from one lemon
salt to taste

 

  • In a medium pot, heat the broth while you prep the vegetables – by the time you are ready to add it to the risotto, it should be just below a simmer.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large, high-sided skillet over medium-low heat.
  • Cut off the root end and the dark green leaves of the leek. Slice the remaining log lengthwise, leaving two long rounded planks. Run these planks under running water, flipping through the layers with your thumbs, to release dirt. Then cut each plank in half lengthwise again, and slice horizontally across into thin ribbons.
  • Add the leeks and half of the finely minced garlic (so, the equivalent of 2 cloves) to the butter and olive oil in the skillet, and turn the heat up to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks are very tender but have not browned much, 5-10 minutes. To keep them from caramelizing, you may need to turn the heat down a bit.
  • When the leeks are translucent and quite tender, turn the heat up to medium-high and add the rice. Stir constantly for 2-3 minutes until the rice grains have become opaque and smell toasty. Pour in the white wine and continue to stir constantly until it is almost all absorbed.
  • Once the wine is almost completely absorbed by the rice, add about a cup of the heated broth, the salt, the pepper, and the thyme sprigs, and stir to combine. Continue to cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until the broth has been absorbed. The more you stir at this stage, the creamier the risotto will be, as what you’re doing is releasing starch from the rice grains into the liquid, which thickens and enriches the mixture.
  • As each cup of hot broth is absorbed into the rice mixture, add another, stirring frequently while it absorbs. Each addition will take a little longer to integrate.
  • In between stirring and adding, poach the eggs and make the breadcrumbs. For the eggs, heat water in a small pot until barely simmering. Add the 1 teaspoon white vinegar, then use a spoon to stir the water in the pot in a circle to create a tiny vortex. Quickly and carefully crack the egg into the vortex (or you can crack the egg into a small dish first, and pour/dump it into the pot), and use your spoon to encourage the swirling whites to cling to the central yolk as it spins in the water. After about two minutes in the barely simmering water, use a spoon or a rubber spatula to gently detach the egg from the bottom of the pot, if it is stuck. After about three minutes, use a slotted spoon to remove the egg carefully to a bowl of warm (not hot!) water, and let it sit until you are ready to serve. Repeat for all eggs.
  • To make the breadcrumbs, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small pan over medium heat. When it is shimmering, add the panko and stir to coat evenly with the oil. Toast over medium heat for 3-5 minutes, or until the panko is crisp and golden brown. Quickly add the remaining minced garlic and the lemon zest, and stir assertively to combine – these new wet ingredients may clump up together. Cook for about 30 seconds with the garlic and lemon zest incorporated, then remove from the heat, salt to taste, and set aside until you are ready to serve.
  • As soon as you add the final dose of broth, add the asparagus pieces and stir well. When the broth is almost completely absorbed, add the peas, the spinach leaves, the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, and the 1 cup of parmesan cheese. Stir to incorporate, and cook just until the peas are warmed through and the spinach has wilted but is still bright green.
  • To serve, spoon a mound of risotto into the center of a shallow bowl. Carefully set the poached egg on top, then sprinkle with a tablespoon or two of the breadcrumbs and serve immediately.

Miso Roasted Asparagus

2016 Food Blog March-0588As any quick forage through this site’s archives confirms, I am not devoted to quick prep, single digit ingredient lists, or other varieties of minimalistic meal construction. Rather, the idea of spending the afternoon in the kitchen stirring and whisking and kneading and puttering delights me. But sometimes, I concede, you do need something that is quick but still screaming with flavor, and when I need that in springtime, I’m almost always going to land on asparagus.

2016 Food Blog March-0565With a pound of turgid green spears in my vegetable drawer, I was digging through the shelves in search of half a lime I knew I had stashed away for a different meal, when my fingers lit upon the miso paste – a sad little plastic container with the same few tablespoons wedged into its corner as six months ago – and I decided it needed its time in the sun (well, in the oven, anyway).

2016 Food Blog March-0567Asparagus seem delicate, but their flavor when roasted is sufficiently pronounced that they can stand up to heavy seasoning. With its salty meaty savoriness, miso seemed an appropriate pairing on a spring day that really wasn’t. I added a few other flavors to meld things together: fish sauce and rice vinegar for a bright and sour kick and a bit of extra funkiness, and a few drops of sesame oil in with the olive oil for extra toasty sheen, but really the stars here are the asparagus and the miso.

2016 Food Blog March-0574This is a bold partner routine. The slight bitterness of the asparagus mellows into nutty sweetness as it roasts, and the miso mixture coats and caramelizes on the thin spears. And all, if you are being very efficient with your time, in about 25 minutes, depending on how quickly your oven deigns to preheat. That is, dare I say it, right in line with how much time you often have to produce a weeknight dinner.

2016 Food Blog March-0581Since these are so strong in flavor – grassy and woodsy from the asparagus and deeply savory from the miso coating – you need something sturdy and singular to serve with it. I think simply seasoned grilled meat would work well, or a portabella mushroom pan-roasted in thick slices, perhaps with a mound of fluffy, buttery mashed potatoes nearby.

2016 Food Blog March-0586

Miso Roasted Asparagus
Serves 2-4 as a side dish
25-30 minutes
1 pound asparagus spears, woody ends snapped off
1 tablespoon red or white miso paste, at room temperature or slightly warmed
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon fish sauce (you can leave this out if you must, but I like the funk)
2 teaspoons rice vinegar

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and line a 9×13 inch baking tray with aluminum foil for easier cleanup. Tumble the asparagus onto the foil lining.
  • In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients. If the miso is reluctant to combine, heat the mixture up for 20-30 seconds in a microwave and whisk again, or use an immersion blender. The end result should be an oily paste, almost like a well-mixed tahini or natural peanut butter in texture.
  • Pour and scrape the miso mixture over the asparagus. Using your hands, massage it onto the spears so that each is well coated. Some of the miso mix will refuse to adhere; that’s okay. Spread the asparagus spears out into a single layer.
  • Slide into the preheated oven and roast for 15-18 minutes, until the asparagus spears are olive green and tender. The precise time will differ depending on the thickness of your spears. Bits of miso mixture at the edges of the foil may get a bit dark, but the majority clumped on the asparagus will simply toast and caramelize.
  • Serve hot as an accompaniment to a sturdy, simply flavored main course like grilled meat or portabella mushrooms with mashed potatoes.