I'm playing with my food again. It's the height of asparagus season, it's cheap everywhere, and gorgeous. There is really nothing to beat steamed or roasted asparagus, seasoned with one herb and sea salt-maybe occasionally dipped into a runny egg yolk for extra pizazz. No trouble, right? That's what I imagine having every night when I dream of asparagus season in the dead of winter.
Now that I've been doing that for a few weeks, and have 2 lbs of asparagus in the house, I'm going off on tangents. Departing from my program of completely simple pleasures, I decided to make some different asparagus stuff. Hence: an asparagus salad with pistachios and an asparagus soup with parmesan custards from the Gourmet Cookbook. For two separate suppers, and for Asparagus Aspirations, a collection of asparagus recipes at Seriously Good.
The salad is not an original-it is a variant of a Judy Rodgers/ Zuni Cafe Salad..but it works particularly well-for preparation purposes -with the soup. Both require some good Parmegiana Reggiano, and I can use the entire asparagus, including the woody bits, unpeeled, if I make both.This is how it works. The salad requires raw asparagus-the equivalent of 2 or 3 stalks per person for a main dish supper or lunch.
The best part to use for this is the top part of the stalk-sans tip-it is the sweetest raw. Sooo, we cut a few of those and set them aside for our salad, snag a few pretty tips for a soup garnish, and use everything else, including all but the very ends of the dubious woodier parts for the soup.
Of course the labor-saving element (no peeling) only has value if you believe as I do, that no amount of prep will make it possible to avoid putting the asparagus soup through a fine sieve or foodmill before you eat it. Once you accept this, you might as well get all the flavor you can from the asparagus before you remove all the rubbish at the end. The soup is not a project for a hungry person only just home from work.
It can, however, be done in shifts, with the pre-custardized soup made ahead and refrigerated, or even frozen. The custards, though a little chef-y, are really delicious with the soup- and very little trouble if you've made your soup ahead. I should think they'd be an impressive beginning to a dinner party, as long as you didn't have much other stuff needing attention at the last minute. Personally, I enjoyed this soup for a weeknight supper shared with one buddy, followed by a couple of slabs of last-night's rosemary-potato pizza and pears. (The Bartletts have been delectible.)
So, I suggest making the soup base on a free day, and then chilling it. This is what I did:
Asparagus soup Part I, prepare asparagus
asparagus, fat spears 2 lbs.
excellent chicken broth 1 qt.
butter, 3 tbsp
Cut off very end of woody part of aspargus and discard. Take 8 fat stalks, and cut off tips and bottom 3 inches. Reserve tips for soup garnish, and center portions separately for the salad. Refrigerate center portions in baggie. Put tips in a little bowl, and pour boiling water over. Let sit until cool. Drain and halve tips, refrigerate. All parts not reserved go in the soup.
In a heavy pot, melt butter. Slice the shallots thinly, then sweat them in the butter. when soft, but not browned, add the broth and the remaining asparagus, cut in one inch lengths. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the aspargus is very soft. Blend with immersion blender, or very carefully, in regular blender. (It's hot!) Put through fine sieve, correct seasoning, and refrigerate or freeze until ready to serve.
Asparagus Salad With Pistachios and Parmasan
adapted from Judy Rodgers
asparagus middles, saved from above, and sliced at an angle into very thin ovals
mache or baby greens
pistachios, lightly toasted
parmesan curls, shaved off with veg peeler
very nice olive oil
white wine vinegar
a shallot, small, finely minced
Quantities are not given, as this is adaptable in many directions. The general idea is this:
Make dressing: Put the shallot in a small bowl and add a pinch of salt. Add olive oil. Whisk in vinegar to taste.
Make salad: Put the greens on a cold plate or in a cold, shallow bowl. Add asparagus and pistachios, plus dressing. Toss gently. Top with parm curls and freshly ground pepper. Serve with good bread.
Asparagus soup Part II, Custards
adapted from the Gourmet Cookbook
heavy cream 1 cup
whole milk 1/2 cup one egg plus 2 yolks
coarsely grated parmagiano reggiano 1 1/4 cups
Combine cheese, cream and milk in a small heavy pan. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, cover, and rest 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350F, and butter ramekins holding a total of 12 oz. Set ramekins in a roasting pan. Strain cream mixture through a fine sieve or chinois. Press on cheese solids a bit. Reserve strained cream. In a 4 cup pyrex pitcher or the like, whisk eggs, yolks, salt and pepper. Still whisking, add cream in a slow stream. Whisk smooth, and pour into ramekins. Pour boiling water into roasting pan, until it is 1/2 way up the ramekins.Bake until set completely- about 45 minutes. Cool ramekins on a rack for (only) 5 minutes. Unmold each into a soup bowl.
Two of my custards were sloppy looking, but they were all delicious. Admittedly this soup is a fussy sort of business-more fiddly than I generally care for. But the result is seriously delicious. The smooth richness and nutty flavor of the custard is just wonderful with the velvety asparagus soup-it's dreamy food. I think it was well worth it, and I'll do it again. Naturally it's nice if your custards are slickly perfect, but if they aren't, it is a minor matter, compared to the yumminess.
Asparagus Soup Part III, Finish
Add 1/2 cup of heavy cream to asparagus soup. Heat, adjust seasoning, and pour around the custards in the soup bowls. Garnish with the reserved tips and/or parm curls, if you like. Serve it up.
Illustration: "Of Spearage or Asparagus" from Gerard's Herbal -from a 1964 reprint of this 1636 classic, which I found in a used bookstore. The illustrations and the plant descriptions are a wonderful combination of fact and fantasy. I think the reason it was so inexpensive was the extensive annotations by someone who was seriously using this as a reference work to practice herbal medicine techniques. Fortunately, the pictures were left alone. The annotations are pretty amusing, but, on reflection, a little scary. I've been hoping they did not lead to the demise of the last owner. Perhaps the book was part of an estate sale?