I call this soup “triple threat asparagus” because the flavors are layered in a stock based upon trimmings, roasted fresh asparagus for maximum flavor and color, and a finishing garnish of roasted asparagus tips. A perfect starter for your St. Patrick’s Day feast, this will whet the palate for corned beef and potatoes like no other. Adapted from the soon-to-be-released The French Cook: Soupes and Daubes (Gibbs Smith, September 2014).
Soupe d’Asperge Cremeux
Triple Threat Creamy Asparagus Soup
(Makes 6 to 8 servings)
Special equipment needed: China cap or fine colander
A shining example of French method and frugality, this purely asparagus soup uses every part of the tender spring spear, and precious little else. A quick asparagus stock is assembled with the tougher outer-layer peels and feet of the spears. Next, the tender asparagus themselves are roasted to intensify flavor and are added near the very end of cooking to maximize color and texture. Leeks provide a bit of onion brightness and a tiny splash of cream at the end is the finishing touch on this exquisite, brilliant green and slightly textured soup.
2 large bunches (about 40 spears) fresh green asparagus, rinsed, tough foot (cut about 1” above the bottom) removed and peeled, starting about 1” below the tip to the bottom. Reserve the removed feet and peelings together in a small bowl. Reserve the peeled asparagus separately.
For the asparagus stock:
1 onion, halved, peeled and thinly sliced
2 stalks celery, rinsed and thinly sliced
7 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
5 sprigs fresh thyme bundled together with kitchen string
Reserved asparagus peelings and trimmings
For roasting the asparagus:
Reserved, prepped asparagus spears
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
Generous dash freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 shallot, peeled, halved and finely chopped
2 leeks, tough green leaves removed to 1” above white (save the green leaves in the freezer for later use in a stock), quartered lengthwise, well-rinsed, and finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Reserved roasted asparagus spears, cut into 1/4”-lengths (put aside 1/4 cup for garnish)
3 tablespoons whipping or heavy cream
1 teaspoon Dry Vermouth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 450F. In a 5 1/2-quart Dutch oven or similarly sized soup pot, combine onion, celery, water, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, fresh thyme bundle, and asparagus feet and peel trimmings. Bring up to a boil over high heat, reduce to a mild simmer over medium/medium low and cook uncovered, 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, to roast the asparagus, on a full, edged baking sheet, toss the prepped asparagus spears in the extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and arrange in a single layer. Place on the middle rack of the preheated oven, and roast for 20 minutes, or until tender and just starting to take on a little golden color. Toss once midway through cooking. Set aside. When cool enough to handle, cut the asparagus into 1/4”-lengths, reserve.
Strain the finished stock through a China cap or fine colander into a large bowl, pressing against the solids to extract flavor. Discard the solids. Keep the strained stock off to the side. Rinse the Dutch oven or soup pot if needed. In the same pot, melt the butter over medium heat. When melted, add the shallot, leeks and seasonings. Stir to coat and cook for 5 minutes, or until just softened. Sprinkle evenly with the flour and stir to coat. Cook for one minute. Add the reserved stock, stirring. Bring to a boil over high and reduce to a gentle simmer over medium/medium low. Cook for 20 minutes uncovered. Remove from the heat. Add all but 1/4 cup of the reserved asparagus spears to the pot. Puree with an emulsion blender, traditional blender or food processor until chunky smooth. In the same pot, bring the puree up to a low boil over high heat. Stir in the cream and the dry vermouth. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Serve the soup very hot in individual bowls, each garnished with five spear tips. (Note: The soup and garnish can be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen. However, only add the cream, vermouth and final seasonings just before re-heating and serving.)
Early spring selflessly affords us with so many wonderful things to celebrate. Here, in Charleston, the air is sweet with the heady frangrances of jasmine, wisteria, and budding trees everywhere. It’s so breathtakingly beautiful, it mandates automatic forgiveness for the pollen that clogs the air and heads of the allergy afflicted masses. Here and elsewhere baseball season begins, Easter and Passover’s celebrations are underway, marathons are being run, and the thing that makes me happiest of all, Farmers’ Markets are dusting off their tents and setting up shop for another long and delicious season.
Nothing puts spring in my step like farmers’ market opening day. The vendors and farmers are rested from their early winter break (although farmers’ work never ends) and tables are bursting with the bounty of spring – tender, sweet onions, asparagus, fresh-from-the-earth potatoes, strawberries, rhubarb, turnips, greens – some of my favorite things. I’ve long held an internal debate about what seasonal foods I most prefer. As much as I adore the tomatoes and peaches of summer and the squash and apples of fall and winter, I always come back to spring as my #1 top pick. I don’t know if it’s because the silence of the winter season seems so long, but there is something about these foods that render me virtually giddy.
So, this past Saturday morning, when Charleston’s downtown Farmers’ Market opened, it felt like I was seven years old on Christmas morning, the anticipation level was that high. I pulled out my trusted, striped farmers’ market basket, donned a beaming smile and headed straight for Marion Square. As always, it was a feast for the senses and the soul. The smell of baking bread co-mingled with the sweetness of strawberries, familiar farmers and vendors smiled and sold their wares, even as more new faces and vendors did the same. It was intoxicating!
I loaded up with all my favorites and headed home to figure out how to best put these goodies to use. This was another reminder of why spring produce is especially idyllic. It needs precious little prep or ingredient additions to render it just about perfect. Super fresh produce responds very well to roasting which does a simple and fantastic job of coaxing the sugars and flavors of the supple produce out of them and directly into your happy mouth and stomach. Hence, the recipe that follows.
Roasted Spring Veggie Medley with Bacon and Scallions
(Yield: 4 to 6 servings)
In this delicious and nutritious warm veggie side, potatoes, spring onions, summer squash (though not yet quite in season), spring onions and asparagus are roasted separately (or alongside each other in the same pan) to retain their individual flavors and then tossed together, topped with sauteed bacon and scallions just prior to serving. Look for the freshest, thinnest skinned new potatoes you can find and leave the skin on. They will take just a little longer than the vegetables to cook, but the short wait is well worth the while. Non-meat eaters feel free to omit the bacon.
10 well-scrubbed small, fresh potatoes, quartered
3 spring onions, trimmed to 3″ length of the green stems, and halved
1 yellow squash, washed, trimmed and cut into 1/2″-thick slices
10 spears asparagus, washed trimmed (cut about 1″ off the bottom) and gently peeled about 3″ up from the base
Extra Virgin Olive oil
Sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 slices bacon, sauteed and crumbled into large chunks
3 scallions, finely chopped
Preheat oven to 425F. Prep the vegetables. In a large roasting pan, arrange each of its kind together in a single layer, side by side. If the pan is too small, roast any remaining vegetable kind (for example asparagus) in a separate pan. Drizzle the veggies generously with olive oil, salt and pepper. Toss each group together to coat. Roast at 425 until tender and barely colored/golden, tossing once or twice. The potatoes will take a little longer than the rest. After 20 – 25 minutes, remove the asparagus, onions and squash with a slotted spoon and transfer to a serving bowl. Keep warm by covering with a piece of aluminum foil. Increase the oven to 450F and continue roasting the potatoes until very tender and just golden, another 10 minutes. Meanwhile, saute the bacon over medium high heat until crispy. Drain on paper towels. Crumble or chop into a small dice. Toss the potatoes together with the warm vegetables. Topp with the bacon and scallions and serve immediately. This is a delicious dish on its own, or would work magic as a side to poultry, fish, pork or steak.
Mom’s Stewed Strawberries and Rhubarb
(Yield: About 2 1/2 cups)
Me and my siblings were basically sweet and dessert deprived as kids because my mother didn’t believe in them. However, she always obliged when strawberry and rhubarb season came around with this simple and delicious compote. Serve it warm over ice cream or cold over yogurt for breakfast. Unlike Mom, I add a little cinnamon and vanilla, but feel free to omit if you want it “plain.”
4 rhubarb spears, trimmed and cut into 1/2″-thick pieces
2 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and halved
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 vanilla pod, cut in half vertically
Generous pinch ground cinnamon
Combine all of the ingredients together in a medium sauce pan. Bring up to a boil over high heat and reduce to medium. Continue to simmer, uncovered, until the rhubarb has broken down into a sauce and the strawberries are still chunky, but very soft. Remove the vanilla pod and discard. Serve warm or cold as suggested above. Refrigerate, covered, for 2 to 3 days. This will also freeze well for several weeks.
It has been a busy week of testing and tasting in my little kitchen, faithful dog Tann Mann by my side. On the menu? The wonderful, versatile world of bechamel as I seek conclusion of the bechamel chapter in the latest book project.
It’s been good news all around, as it should be for anyone working with this creamy, mild sauce. Firstly, it’s pretty difficult to err preparing a bechamel, a simple blend of butter, flour, shallot, milk and/or cream. Secondly, it’s really fun to come up with flavor pairings to embellish and enhance the bechamel base.
Frequently, people ask me how I come up with recipe ideas. It can be ideas from friends, a long walk with a head full of recipe ruminations, or a tasty restaurant feast. But, more often than not, it begins with a simple product, usually a vegetable, to get me started. This is the first flavor layer that hopefully will yield a perfect flavor and texture symphony that bursts in happy mouths and souls.
And, so it was product inspiration that got me started this past week. At the market, I came across a bin full of spectacular shitakes and some beautiful, fresh asparagus. The asparagus got me thinking about citrus, specifically orange, and a mild onion flavor and bright color, the kind that chives offer with panache. Thus, the asparagus gratin I made with an orange/chive bechamel. This recipe needed a little tweaking however, because the walnut topping I opted for, turned out to be too much. A little back to the drawing board, and we hit the mark. Besides, Tann Mann appreciated a few walnut treats.
But, it was the shitakes that formed the first flavor layer that ultimately combined with morels, portobello, leeks and more to yield a lovely lasagna that my friendly neighbor taste testers deemed “Wonder bar,” “Perfect – don’t change a thing,” and “divine.” Yeah – I’ll take it! This does not happen every day, and it’s very welcome when it does.
I happened to have a chunk of fragrant, creamy Port Salut cheese in the fridge, so this was whisked into the bechamel base, transforming it into a variation on the sauce theme, called a Mornay. Fresh thyme, leeks and the sweet richness of Marsala brought it all together. It’s a little bit time consuming and a little bit rich, but with a small side salad, it’s still the perfect meal for early summer. Also, it can be completely assembled a full day ahead, refrigerated and baked off in a brief 30 minutes, as guests enjoy an aperitif and easy company.
Wild Mushroom & Leek Lasagna with Marsala and Thyme Mornay Sauce
(Serves 8 to 10)
1/2 ounce dried morels
1 cup dry Marsala
4 TBS Olive Oil
2 leeks, cleaned, trimmed, quartered and finely diced
6 cups thinly sliced shitake mushrooms
3 cups portobello mushrooms, cut into 1/4″ cubes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup dry Marsala wine
3 TBS white wine (suggest Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio)
For the pasta:
One pound dry lasagna
Water to cover
Several tablespoons salt
3 TBS Olive Oil
For the cheese filling/toppings:
2 cups ricotta cheese
1/2 cup fresh mozzarella Perline (tiny cheese balls) or grated fresh mozzarella
1 cup grated Parmesan
For the Mornay:
4 TBS unsalted butter
1 shallot, finely chopped
4 TBS All Purpose flour
2 cups skim milk
1 1/2 cups Half & Half
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
reserved Marsala from the morels
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 cup Port Salut cheese, coarsely chopped (or substitute Fontina)
Combine the morels with 1 cup dry Marsala in a small, non-reactive bowl. Heat on high for 1 minute in the microwave. Set aside to re-hydrate the mushrooms, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large, deep skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high. Add the leeks, stirring, cooking until just softened, about 5 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Add the shitakes and portobello mushrooms, stirring to coat and soften. Season these lightly with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking until the mushrooms (they will look like a LOT at first), have softened, about 7 minutes. Increase heat to high. Add the 1/2 cup Marsala and cook until the wine has reduced to nothing. Repeat with the white wine. Meanwhile, using your hands, squeeze the Marsala out of the reserved morels, and finely chop the morels. Add these to the mushroom mixture, stirring to combine. Reserve the Marsala soaking liquid for the sauce. Turn off the heat and set the sauteed mushroom/leek mixture aside.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water up to a rapid boil. Season generously with salt. Add the lasagna all at once, and cook to package directions. The goal is to cook the pasta to al dente. Count on about 8 to 9 minutes, depending on the brand used. Drain the pasta once it’s cooked and set aside.
While that’s happening, measure out and prep the ricotta, mozzarella, and Parmesan, and have it ready for the lasagna assembly. Preheat oven to 375 and lightly oil or butter a lasagna pan or large, rectangular casserole pan.
Prepare the Mornay. In a large sauce pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots and sweat to cook down for about three minutes. Add the flour, whisking to combine. Cook through for another three minutes. Add the cold skim milk and cold Half & Half, streaming in as you whisk. Increase heat to medium high, whisking the entire time. Once the sauce has come to just below a boil, it will thicken to a thin pudding consistency. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add the reserved Marsala from the morels, thyme, nutmeg, and Port Salut cheese. Continue to whisk until the cheese is fully melted and incorporated. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
Time to compile the lasagna!
Pour 1 cup of the Mornay onto the bottom of the pan and spread with a spatula to evenly distribute. Top with a layer of slightly over-lapped lasagna noodles (you will need about 5 or 6 for each layers, loosing broken pieces to fill any gaps in the corners, etc). Top that with 2 cups of the mushroom/leek mixture, spreading with a spatula to evenly distribute. Top with 1 cup of ricotta, spread to even with a spatula. Drizzle with 1/2 cup of the grated Parmesan. Top with another cup of Mornay, spread to distribute. Repeat with another layer of lasagna, remaining mushroom mixture, another cup of ricotta, and another cup of Mornay. Finish with another layer of lasagna and a thin coating of the remaining Mornay sauce.
Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes, until heated through and bubbling. Remove the foil, and add a layer of the remaining Parmesan and mozzarella, scattered across the top. Cover with foil and return to bake for another 10 minutes. Remove the foil, and bake a final 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to stand 10 minutes before cutting.
Serve with sprigs of fresh thyme and a fresh green salad.