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.

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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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Smoked Salmon Burgers and Not-Ciabatta

In 2009, as N. and I were working through the Oral Examination phase of our graduate program – one of the most difficult aspects, as far as I’m concerned – a little restaurant opened on the south side of town.  Sharing space with a small bakery called the Humble Bagel, and run by the bagel shop owners’ daughter Anni and her husband Ari, the Humble Beagle quickly became our favorite restaurant in Eugene.  The feel is an intriguing blend: casual neighborhood gastropub, seasonal local food, layered with Israeli influence.  Macaroni and cheese, Caesar salad with amazingly lemony dressing, or penne with fresh pesto share menu space with shakshuka, house made pita, and lamb pizza dolloped with labneh.  In the summer, weekly specials are determined by what is producing best in Ari and Anni’s backyard garden.  In the winter, Ari makes his own pastrami and quick pickled cabbage for their take on a reuben.  The beers on tap are mostly from Oregon, and even the soft drink selection is carefully chosen for its local, natural ingredients.  The check comes with homemade, sugar dusted shortbread cookies.  It’s a pretty good example of the slow food movement in delicious action.  If you want a quick meal, don’t bother.  You’ll be there at least two hours.  If you want a place to bring your sixteen unannounced relatives, don’t show up without reservations.  This is a small, local pub, not a diner or high volume chain.  If you want tasty, thoughtful, belly-warming food at a relaxed pace, get in your car right now.  For a while, as N. and I neared the dates of our respective exams, we were going to the Beagle every Friday evening for dinner.  Almost without exception, I got the Fisherman’s Stew, a lovely collection of shellfish and moist, flaky halibut in a tomato and fennel broth with garlic aioli melting achingly over the top.  We could barely afford the luxury of these weekly visits, but we also couldn’t stay away.

The Beagle entertained us for the next three years.  We went there for birthdays – N.’s 30th, when Ari let me bring a cake I’d made at home, gave me the biggest chef’s knife I’ve ever seen to slice and serve it, and then took a leftover piece back to the kitchen where he shared it with the cooks.  We went there for the yearly day-after-Thanksgiving meal with my family.  One year, fifteen minutes into the meal we were the only patrons, and it was like our own private restaurant.  Ari came out and told us stories about his family’s holiday, and we were suddenly not in a restaurant anymore, but in the home of our friend.  We went there for dinner after my dissertation defense too, and even though we ended up being an annoying group – people arriving late and leaving early, special menu substitutions and requests, perhaps slightly-too-boisterous behavior – our server said it was okay, and that Ari had told him we were royalty.

On their Summer 2010 menu, the Beagle introduced an item I was instantly drawn to and still haven’t gotten enough of: the Smoked Chinook Patty.  This was a salmon burger on fresh ciabatta (made in the bakery next door), but what pulled me in was its blend of fresh and smoked salmon.  It’s immediately richer, deeper, brinier than any other salmon patty I’ve tasted.

This week, needing both a new dough challenge and a taste of that chilly, rain-soaked, allergen-laden city I still think of as home, I decided a recreation was in order.

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The Beagle’s patty comes on freshly made, perfectly crusted, well-toasted ciabatta rolls.  Looking in Ruhlman’s Ratio this week, I noted that the only difference he gives between ciabatta and a standard baguette or boule is the shape and cooking time.  This seemed promising and so, despite my claims last week about fear and being unready, I decided to dive in.  What else is a Thursday morning for?

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I dutifully mixed, then kneaded, bread flour, water, yeast, and salt.  I tore off a chunk to perform the windowpane test, and I cuddled my ball of smooth, elastic dough in an oiled bowl to rest and rise.

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Ruhlman doesn’t give any suggestion of how long to bake individual ciabatta rolls, only a full loaf, so I went to the internet for help.  I quickly discovered that what I was making wasn’t going to be the bread I’d had in mind: the tremendous bubbles that bake into cavernous holes, the flour-dusted, almost gravely crunch of the crust, and the soft, perfectly chewy texture of the interior are achieved through a slightly different ratio of ingredients, and a more involved process, as this article on The Kitchn depicts.  Since I was starting on the day of baking and didn’t have a biga waiting in the wings, I was just going to have to work with my mix.

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Ultimately, though what resulted was more like a super crunchy, slightly flat mini boule, it was crisp and buttery golden delicious and an excellent vehicle for the smoky/briny/rich/tastes-like-home burger it enclosed.

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Not-Ciabatta

10 ounces bread flour (or 2 cups)

6 ounces warm water

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon active dry yeast

Sprinkle the yeast over the surface of the water and set it aside for five minutes or so to come back to life.

While you wait, whisk flour and salt in a mixing bowl.  Make a little well in the center and pour in the yeasted water.  If using a stand mixer, beat with the paddle attachment just until things come together, then switch to the dough hook and knead at medium speed for 10 minutes.  I had never executed this switch between tools before, but it worked really well.

After 10 minutes, the dough should be stretchy and lovely and firm, and all traces of unincorporated flour on the sides of the bowl will be gone.  Do the windowpane test to see if the bread is ready.  If it’s not, continue kneading.  If it is, transfer the ball of dough to a lightly oiled bowl and place in a warm, draft-free place to rise.  I like to put it in an oven that’s been warmed for five minutes, then turned off for five minutes.

Let the dough rise until doubled in size – mine took 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Punch down the dough gently and then knead it on a floured board for a minute or two to deflate it a bit.

Let it rest for 15 minutes.

At this point, divide the dough, shape it into the bun shapes you want, and let it rise on an oiled baking sheet for another 1½ – 2 hours.  I ended up with seven mismatched, homely little balls, but I lovingly covered them with a clean kitchen towel and went about my business.  (I think I went about my business a bit too long – 2 hours became almost 3½, and the resulting buns didn’t puff much during baking because they’d expended so much of their rising power as they sat on my counter.)

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When the buns have risen again, drizzle them with olive oil and bake in a preheated 450F oven for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to 375F and continue baking for another 20 minutes, or until golden brown and done in the center (with a full-size loaf you can thump the bottom and if it sounds hollow it’s done, but I suspect these are too small to yield satisfying results with this method.  Since I had 7, I just tore into one to see if it was done, and when it was, I ate it.  No one else has to know).

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Set aside to cool while you make the salmon patties.

 

Smoked Salmon Burgers

These are robust in flavor but, especially if you are using canned salmon, must be handled with some delicacy to prevent breakage.  They are, I think, a perfect blend: rich, fatty salmon, salty smoky deepness, and the sour zesty bite of capers and lemon.  If you don’t want to bother with the buns, you could certainly encase these in crisp leaves of butter lettuce.

15 oz. canned salmon, picked through and bones removed, or about 1 lb. fresh, finely chopped

4-6 oz. smoked salmon, flaked with a fork

2 cloves garlic, *pasted with salt or grated

3 green onions, finely diced

1 TB capers, minced

1 TB fresh dill, minced

1 tsp each lemon zest and lemon juice

Pepper to taste

1 egg, lightly beaten

If you are using canned salmon, combine all ingredients except the egg and taste for seasoning.  That way your mixture is perfectly seasoned before adding raw egg to the party.  You will likely not need any additional salt, because the smoked salmon and capers are briny already, and if you paste your garlic you will already be adding salt to the mixture.

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If you are using fresh salmon, combine all ingredients, mix well, and then fry about a tablespoon of the mixture until cooked through to taste for seasoning.

*To paste the garlic, mince cloves, then sprinkle with salt.  Using firm pressure, draw the blade of your knife across the garlic on the board several times.  It will begin to lose its integrity as the salt breaks it down, until you are left with a paste that is much easier to incorporate into your salmon mixture.

When it is seasoned to your liking, quarter the mixture and form four equal sized patties of 3-4 inches in diameter.  Pop these in the refrigerator for at least half an hour to let them firm up and meld – they will hold together in the pan much better this way.

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Before cooking, let your refrigerated patties stand at room temperature for about 10 minutes, just to take the chill off.

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Warm olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and gently fry the patties.  They should take 5-8 minutes per side.  Cooking time will depend upon whether you have used canned or fresh salmon and how plump your patties are.

To serve, enclose in buns lovingly with some spring mix and your choice of condiments.  I suggest horseradish or wasabi mayonnaise.  If you had homemade mayonnaise that would be a lovely splurge here.

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We had ours with paprika spiced kale chips, but to really get the Beagle experience you would need to serve with garlic French fries.

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