Soup is an unexpected twist on asparagus

New York TimesJune 17, 2014 

In my frenzy to eat enough asparagus every spring, I inevitably take the speedy route to dinner – steaming, sautéeing, broiling, roasting. The aim is to get the stalks from raw to cooked as quickly as possible so I can gobble them up.

Because of this, I’ve neglected soup. But on a particularly cold and dreary spring day, when the rain came down so hard that a two-minute walk left me and my bag of asparagus drenched, there seemed no better time to rectify my oversight. A bowl of steaming, creamy asparagus soup would set things right.

In winter, my go-to vegetable soup recipe involves simmering whatever I have on hand (a mix of potatoes and other root vegetables, usually) in stock or water until soft, then pureeing.

I took the same tack with my asparagus, but I added one more layer of flavor. To deepen the character of the soup, I made a quick stock using the asparagus ends and dark green leek tops that usually are thrown away. I simmered the vegetable trimmings in pre-made chicken stock because I had some in the freezer and I was craving something rich and heady. But you can substitute water if you prefer; just toss in whatever herbs you have around and a good dose of salt to bring up the flavors.

Then I cooked the asparagus stalks in the fragrant broth until they were so tender they slipped off my fork when I tried to stab them, but not completely mushy. Don’t overdo it. You want the vegetable to retain some of its grassy freshness.

For pureeing, use whatever tool is close by: a blender, food processor or food mill. But go at it with a light touch. Some texture here is more appealing than a completely smooth broth.

When I first made this soup, we ate it with buttered toast. In this version, I go one better, and accompany it with crostini topped with fresh ricotta and herbs. Feel free to dunk; the ricotta tastes even better when soaked in the green puree of the soup.

In a way, this dish reminds me of the vernal version of a winter tomato soup with grilled cheese on the side – but with the fresh, bright taste of spring.

Asparagus Soup With Ricotta Crostini

1 3/4 pounds asparagus

3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, more as needed

2 large leeks, halved lengthwise and rinsed

1 quart chicken stock

1 bay leaf

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons uncooked white rice

1/4 teaspoon black pepper, more as needed

1 teaspoon lemon juice, more as needed

4 1/2-inch-thick baguette slices, cut on the bias

1/2 cup fresh ricotta

2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon (or chives)

1 garlic clove, peeled and halved

CUT asparagus stalks into thirds, separating tips, middles and ends. In a medium pot, bring 2 cups salted water to a boil. Add tips and cook until just tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a bowl of ice water to cool. Drain and reserve for garnish.

SEPARATE dark green leek tops from bottoms. Thinly slice the white leek bottoms and set aside.

IN a saucepan, combine leek tops, stock, asparagus bottoms and bay leaf. Simmer for 10 to 20 minutes; strain, discarding the solids and saving the stock.

RETURN empty pot to medium-low heat. Add oil, white leek slices and rice. Cook, stirring frequently, until leeks are golden, about 5 minutes. Pour in 1 cup of the stock. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add remaining stock and asparagus middles. Simmer, covered, over low heat, until asparagus is completely tender, 7 to 10 minutes.

PRESS soup through a food mill (or puree in a blender, then strain through a coarse mesh sieve; not too fine, you want a little texture). Return soup to pot. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste. Cover to keep warm.

HEAT oven to 350 degrees. Place bread slices on a baking sheet and toast, turning halfway through, until bread is golden and dry to the touch, about 10 minutes.

WHILE bread toasts, season ricotta with tarragon, salt and pepper. Rub hot crostini with the cut side of the halved garlic cloves and slather with ricotta. Ladle soup into warm bowls and garnish with the asparagus tips. Serve with crostini.

Yield: 4 servings.

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