The arrival of asparagus shows me spring is here. I don’t care if the weather is telling me it’s still winter, drawing its last breaths. Here’s my equation: asparagus = spring.
Today, of course, thanks to global merchandising, we can find asparagus in our markets (or in our vegetable gardens), wherever spring happens to be.
I love eating asparagus in all sorts of ways: steamed, baked with a grating of Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil, in a quiche or a salad, and in soup. One step I always take — if the spears are fat — is to peel them.
I learned from watching Julia Child, way back when I was a newlywed, that peeling asparagus was the only way to make sure the entire spear would be edible. Many years later, when I worked in a Bavarian restaurant in Ulm, Germany, the chef peeled cases of white asparagus to ready the spears for his special seasonal menu.
Peeling asparagus is not a chore. After snapping off the butt ends, you lay the spears on your work surface and use a vegetable peeler to strip off the tough peel. I give full directions in the recipe.
When my wife and I were graduate students, the first time we had company over for dinner we were so far behind schedule that we asked our guests to peel the asparagus while we readied other dishes on our menu. They were charmed by the idea, and we all had a marvelous time.
So. About this soup — you will love it. The recipe is straightforward and unfussy, and there are very few ingredients. Asparagus is the star, as well it should be. Happy cooking and eating!
Cream of Asparagus Soup
(Makes 4 to 6 servings)
2 1/2 pounds asparagus spears
1 cup (4 ounces) thinly sliced shallots
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup heavy cream
1. Snap off the tough stems from the asparagus spears and put them into a large (4-quart) saucepan. Add 1 1/2 quarts water and 1 tablespoon salt and bring to the boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium or medium-high and cook at a steady boil, uncovered, about 20 minutes, until the water has turned a golden color or pale green.
2. Pass the asparagus stems and water through a fine strainer into a large bowl. Save the water and discard the stems.
3. Peel the asparagus stems with a vegetable peeler. Lay the spears on your work surface. Grasp one about 3 inches below its tip and run the peeler swiftly from that point toward the base of the spear. Rotate the spear a bit after each stroke until the spear is peeled. Repeat with the remaining asparagus. This process moves very quickly and you should have all the spears peeled in 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Cut off and reserve 2 to 3 inches of the tip ends. Bring a quart or so of water to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 teaspoon salt. Drop in the asparagus tips and cook them for 3 minutes. Drain well and plunge the tips into a bowl of cold water to cool completely. Drain and set aside to use as a garnish.
5. Cut the tipless spears into 1-inch pieces and set aside.
6. Prepare the shallots. Heat the butter and olive oil in a large (4-quart) saucepan over medium heat. When bubbly, stir in the shallots and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until the shallots are tender and just begin to take on a bit of color, about 5 minutes. Stir in the cut asparagus spears from the previous step and cover the pot. Cook about 5 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the asparagus is tender enough to pierce with a paring knife. Add the flour and stir and cook 2 minutes. The flour may film the bottom of the pan, which is fine.
7. Measure 4 cups of the water used to cook the butt ends of the asparagus and add to a blender. Add the shallots and asparagus stems and puree until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the soup back to the cooking pot. Alternatively, you could leave the shallots and asparagus in their cooking pan, add the 4 cups water, and puree the soup with an immersion blender.
8. Taste carefully, stir in the cream, and adjust the seasoning with salt and white pepper. The soup is ready to heat to piping hot and ladled into warmed bowls. Garnish each serving with a few blanched asparagus tips and serve.
Greg Patent is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author for “Baking in America,” a food journalist, blogger, and radio co-host for “The Food Guys” on Montana Public Radio. Please visit his blog, www.thebakingwizard.com, and follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.