The Heart of New England
Fresh Asparagus Soup                                                            
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By Charlie Burke
The unexpected first spear of asparagus in our garden was beheaded by a hose
dragged across the oldest of our three beds but was soon followed by several
more, and we look forward to several weeks of this special spring crop. I avoid
buying out of season asparagus -- who knows where it comes from or what
chemicals have been applied? The flavor of fresh, locally grown spears is vastly
superior and signals the true arrival of spring.

Choose large spears with tightly closed buds. The very thin spears which
gained popularity years ago when “nouvelle cuisine” featured all kinds of baby
vegetables are actually inferior to thicker stalks and are produced by less
mature or healthy plants.

Healthy plants produce stalks at an amazing rate, and these are very tender
with proportionally less fibrous skin than the thinner spears. If you must store
asparagus, refrigerate the spears upright in a glass in an inch or so of water
covered with a moist towel, but they are best eaten the day they are picked.

We previously described the basic cooking of
asparagus and little needs to be
done to enjoy its flavor. Remember not to overcook asparagus; flavor it with
butter or olive oil, adding lemon juice or a light sprinkling of Parmesan cheese
for variety.

When we’ve had our fill of fresh asparagus cooked this way, I’ll make soup
which can be served either hot or cold. Many recipes call for chicken stock and
include other ingredients such as potato, egg yolks or rice, but I prefer to use
minimal additions, permitting the fresh “green” flavor to shine. Using the water
in which the asparagus is boiled captures all of this flavor. I usually serve this
simple pureed soup as is, but adding a tablespoon of sautéed pancetta and
asparagus adds a new dimension.

Four servings:

2 pounds asparagus, washed, with 1 – 2 inches of base removed (peeling the
lower third of the stalks permits use of all except the very base)
6 cups water
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
½ cup chopped shallot, leek or sweet onion
1 ½ tablespoon flour
½ cup cream, light or heavy (optional)
Kosher or sea salt and fresh ground pepper

Optional addition to hot soup:
4 stalks asparagus, washed and cut into ½ inch pieces
1 tablespoon chopped pancetta or bacon
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon olive oil

Bring 6 cups water to a boil in a medium sauce pan and add 1 tablespoon salt.  
Chop asparagus in large pieces and put into boiling water. Boil for 8 - 10
minutes (for soup, asparagus is cooked longer than for table presentations).

While asparagus is cooking, heat a medium sauté pan over medium heat and
sauté shallots until soft but not browned. Sprinkle flour over shallots and cook,
stirring for 2-3 minutes to remove the raw flour taste. Set aside.

When asparagus is softened, remove with a slotted spoon and place in a
blender or food processor, along with 1 ½ cup of the cooking water and the
shallot mixture. Process or blend until very smooth –- if using a blender, hold a
towel over the top and start at slow speed to avoid splashing the hot liquid.

When thoroughly blended, return to the liquid in the sauce pan (strain if you
want a very smooth soup –- I do not bother). Whisk to combine and add cream,
if using.

Correct seasoning and serve. If serving later, cool, cover and refrigerate; do not
add cream until soup is reheated. To serve cold, add cream immediately before
serving and check seasoning because cold soup may require more salt.

If you wish to add the asparagus pieces and pancetta, heat oil and pancetta in a
small sauté pan over medium heat and cook until pancetta is lightly browned.
Add asparagus pieces and cook for a minute or two until asparagus is bright
green. Sprinkle with cheese off heat and add a tablespoon of the mixture to each

This preparation is quite easy, and preserves the intense flavor of fresh local
asparagus, which should be available at farm stands and farmers’ markets over
the weeks ahead. Buy this great local taste of spring and see how it outshines
those “foreign” crops!

About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the
New Hampshire Farmer's Market Association, president of the NH Farm
to Restaurant Connection and helps run the Sanbornton (NH) Farmers' Market.  Along
with his wife, Joanne, Charlie grows certified organic herbs, greens and berries at Weather
Hill Farm in Sanbornton, NH.  
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Asparagus soup...with asparagus peeking up from the ground :)
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