A different kind of green
Fresh idea: I always like to cook and serve something green for St. Patrick's Day, and not just because green is the official color of the Irish people and their patron saint. (Fotolia.com/TMS)
I always like to cook and serve something green for Saint Patrick's Day, and not just because green is the official color of the Irish people and their patron saint. That holiday also happens to fall just a few days before the first day of spring (Tuesday, March 20). So now is also the perfect opportunity to celebrate the season of the earth's renewal.
One of the highlights of the springtime harvest for me is the arrival of fresh local asparagus. And, yes, nowadays you can find asparagus in the markets virtually year-round thanks to international shipping. But the finest flavor and texture will almost always come from fresh asparagus grown closer to home and quickly whisked to market after harvest.
I especially like the so-called "pencil" asparagus. As the name applies, these spears are as thin as pencils, being harvested while still very young, and they have a subtle flavor and delicate texture that seems to me the essence of spring.
Pencil asparagus need very little in the way of preparation. All you have to do is rinse them and then bend them near their cut stem ends to snap off any woody part. They are so tender and mild that you can even serve them raw as part of a vegetable platter with dips. To cook them, they turn perfectly al dente, tender but still slightly crisp, after just a couple of minutes of steaming, boiling, grilling, or -- if first cut into bite-sized pieces -- stir-frying.
But one of my favorite ways to prepare these early crops of asparagus is to turn them into a subtly flavorful, beautiful pale green asparagus soup. For such a preparation, you just have to chop up the asparagus spears into small pieces and then simmer them in a mixture of mildly onion-scented broth and cream. (I also sometimes like to add a touch of honey, which gently highlights the vegetable's touch of natural sweetness.) Once the asparagus is tender, all that remains to do is puree it in a food processor or blender, pass it through a sieve to remove any fibers and achieve absolute smoothness, and then add a final accent of fresh lemon juice.
The result of this process that takes less than half an hour is a bright, light-green soup that tastes like springtime in a bowl. Serve it as the first course of your Saint Patrick's Day dinner this coming weekend -- and then go on enjoying it regularly as long as fresh asparagus is in season.
FRESH SPRINGTIME ASPARAGUS SOUP
1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
4 cups organic chicken broth
2 cups heavy cream, plus 1/2 cup extra lightly whipped for optional garnish
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon salt, plus extra as needed
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, plus extra as needed
2-1/2 pounds fresh organic pencil-thin asparagus, trimmed and chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley or chives
Heat the olive oil in a nonreactive pot over medium heat. Add the butter. When it foams, add the onion, reduce the heat to low and saute, stirring frequently, until the onion turns translucent and very tender, about 7 to 10 minutes, taking care not to let the onion brown.
Stir in the broth, 2 cups cream, honey, salt, and pepper. Raise the heat to medium-high, bring to a simmer, and continue simmering for 5 minutes.
Stir in the asparagus and cook until tender, 3 to 5 minutes.
Remove the pot from the stove. Working in batches to avoid overfilling, and following manufacturer's instructions for working carefully with hot liquids to avoid spattering, use a food processor or blender to puree the soup. As each batch is pureed, pour it into a fine-meshed strainer held over a large mixing bowl, pressing it through with a rubber spatula and then discarding the fibers left in the strainer.
Return the pureed soup to the pot and reheat gently, stirring in the lemon juice. Taste and, if necessary, adjust the seasonings with more salt and white pepper.
Ladle the soup into heated bowls. If you like, add a dollop of whipped cream to each serving. Serve immediately, garnished with parsley or chives.