Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cooking to Save the Planet: Cream of Asparagus Soup

I have asparagus on my mind this fine early spring evening—no doubt because, as I type this, I’m supping a cup of cream of asparagus soup. Asparagus is, for me, more than just a vegetable: it’s the quintessence of springtime, kitchenwise.

One of many memories I cherish from my grandmother’s garden is the asparagus that grew amidst the iris in a sunny bed against the east wall of her house. The iris themselves were a marvel, with the added attraction of being child-height, so that they were easy to reach for smelling or a closer inspection of their mysterious fringed depths, in which the predominant color of the flower freckled its way down a lighter, guarded interior. My grandmother (who called them flags) grew a variety of them I don’t see anymore: white, pink, maroon, purple, salmon, gold, yellow, and a beautiful, unusual beige.

Since asparagus like the same sandy, well-drained rich soil that flags prefer, the two grew together in profusion, without demanding much work on the part of those tending the garden. And the fern-like foliage of the mature asparagus, with its scarlet berries, gave interest to the flag bed once the iris had bloomed and returned to their boring usual state of stiff green spikes for the remainder of the summer. Crawling all through the feet of both plants was a profusion of mint, which perfumed the summer air as the rising sun fell on it each morning.

My first memories of eating asparagus are in that garden. My grandmother and my aunt Kat, my mother’s unmarried oldest sister who kept house for her mother and brother while teaching school, both showed me how to snap the fresh stalks off at ground level, wipe the dirt away from them, and then eat them then and there, as God made them, still warm with sun. And vital with a green force that asparagus, of all vegetables, seems to hold in most abundance.

I think that’s part of the attraction of this particular spring vegetable: its sudden emergence out of ground that has been frozen through the cold part of the year, its green vitality, epitomizes new life, new spring growth. There it is, all of sudden, where only a day or so before there was only dormant earth. Earth uplifted in green glory . . . .

This is why, I think, many cultures make something of a cult out of harvesting and eating asparagus in the springtime. I’ve blogged on my travel blog Never in Paradise about the delights of Spargelzeit, asparagus time, in Germany. When asparagus (the Germans prefer the thick white stalks one gets if one deprives the emerging asparagus of light) is in season, every restaurant you pass has chalked on its chalkboard a daily menu offering an assortment of asparagus dishes—asparagus in hollandaise sauce, asparagus wrapped in ham, asparagus with brown butter, breadcrumbs, and chopped boiled egg.

For people deprived of fresh vegetables and, in particular, of fresh green vegetables, during the bleak months of the year, asparagus must have seemed a veritable gift of the gods as spring arrived: delicately flavored but with a singular, unmistakable taste that is to many palates the essence of green, of spring’s new life, of the promise of summer abundance. Asparagus is more than a vegetable: it is spring itself, with its tonic, healing promise for those who have endured winter and whose bodies are starved for green.

And so I eat asparagus as often as possible in the spring. And as I do so, I refuse to fuss with a vegetable that needs few accompaniments to make it delicious, and whose distinctive taste is easily overwhelmed by sauces or additions. Lightly steamed and dressed with a bit of butter or olive oil, it is exquisite. A twist of lemon juice doesn’t hurt, a grating of fresh black pepper, perhaps a light dusting of grated parmesan. But nothing more, unless you happen to have some of the steamed asparagus left over, and want to serve it as a second meal in a light, mustardy vinaigrette sauce with chopped boiled egg on top.

What I’m working my way around to, however, are not recommendations for cooking and eating the asparagus stalk itself, but for a way of using and enjoying the woody ends of the stalks that one discards as one prepares the asparagus for steaming. It is those woody ends that have become our evening supper of cream of asparagus soup. (And this works best when you have several bunches of asparagus to cook, so that you have ends in abundance with which to work.)

When I snap these off as I prepare asparagus, I don’t discard them. In fact, they go into the same water I use to steam the asparagus. After I remove the asparagus from the steamer, I add a bit more water along with a bit of this or that, to steam along with the asparagus and form the basis of what eventually becomes the cream of asparagus soup.

I almost always have a half of an onion in the vegetable bin of the icebox. That usually goes into the soup pot with the asparagus ends. If I don’t have an onion cut, I may cut a fresh one and add a slice or two to the asparagus, or I may add the greens of spring onions whose bulbs I’ve used in a salad or a stew.

I use parsley daily, in almost any dish I cook, so I often have a handful of parsley sprigs saved after I’ve removed and chopped the leaves to add to various dishes. Those, too, go into the asparagus, as they do into just about any cream of vegetable soup I cook.

I avoid anything with stronger flavor, since I want the asparagus to stand out in the final product, the creamed soup. Onion points up the flavor of asparagus without overwhelming it. Bell pepper or celery would not have the same effect.

And that’s it. After the vegetables are tender, I puree them and press them through a conical sieve—a so-called “China cap”—made for juicing fruits as one turns them into jam. Into the puree, I then mix about an equal portion of whole milk, along with a knob of butter into which I’ve cut several tablespoons of flour. Salt, pepper, perhaps the merest whisper of grated nutmeg—enough to warm the flavor of the soup without competing with the taste of the asparagus—and that’s it. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and serve.

A meal made from bits of vegetables that might otherwise be discarded—with thin sliced sourdough bread generously buttered and topped with grated parmesan, then browned under the broiler, a meal fit for the gods. And one that contributes to saving the planet.