Thursday, March 10, 2011

Easy Home-made Asparagus Soup

I was a very obedient and unfussy eater as a child (which is probably why I fastidiously finish all the food on my plate now). There was nothing that I wouldn't try or wouldn't eat, and my meals were always well balanced. My Mum was great on colour and presentation – making sure there were different colours on the plate (literally choosing carrots instead of peas to offset the green marrows), and occasionally shaping everything into a pattern or face. Despite that, I don't think I had a very adventurous childhood menu.

"Cold meats and salads" was a frequent weekend feature in musky Natal, and tinned asparagus was often on the menu. I loved their neutral, slightly salty taste and melt-in-your-mouth spongy texture, and used to count out the spears onto the plates so we all got a fair number. It wasn't until I was older that I tasted fresh, firm-but-yielding steamed asparagus.

And I'm a big fan. They are, for me, quintessentially foodie produce. Like artichokes. Why? Because they're a meal on their own. Because of their gourmet appearance. Because of their earthy green colour which is begging to be painted. Because of their simple flavour which responds so well to simplicity. Because they're seasonal and look so beautiful in a market basket. Because, maybe, I thought for so long they grew, colourless cream, in tins of brine not in the ground until I tasted a fresh one and toyed with their potential.

So here's an asparagus soup recipe I experimented with recently. (In South Africa, asparagus is officially out of season during our autumn, and back in June - the perfect, chilly time for soup!) I haven't used flour much in soups – I make a lot of tomato-based soups, fill the pot with veg, or purree the ingredients, so the thickness isn't a concern. But I wanted to make a creamy soup quickly and simply, with ingredients I had in my fridge and cupboard and, ideally for a "healthy" weeknight meal, without actual cream!

  • 1 tbsp canola/grape seed oil
  • 2 bunches/punnets of asparagus
  • 1 white onion, finally chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 4 cups stock
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • Approx half a cup of milk
  • 1 - 2 heaped tbsp smooth, plain cottage cheese
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan

How to make:
Snap off the woody ends of the asparagus, chop them in half and set aside. Saute and soften the onions in the oil, then add the garlic and, as it gets fragrant, add the asparagus. Allow to sweat for about 10 minutes with the onion and garlic. Add the stock and allow to simmer until asparagus is cooked. Remove from heat.

In the meantime, on a low heat, melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the flour. It will go dryish, so add a few teaspoons of the stock from the simmering soup and stir vigorously till it becomes a gluey mixture. Pour some milk in slowly (about 2 tbsp) and continue to stir vigorously to keep the mixture smooth and elastic. Stir in the cottage cheese. Alternately add liquid – a little stock, then a little milk - to the roux (white sauce) until you have a creamy consistency. Melt the cheese into the sauce, reserving a little aside for garnish.

Keeping aside a few spear tips for garnish, blend the asparagus and remaining stock in a blender and add to the roux. Stir to combine and allow to simmer together for about 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with fresh ground black pepper, a sprinkle or Parmesan and an asparagus spear floating on top.

Gardner's tip:
Tomatoes and asparagus have amazing synergy - and not just on the plate! The asparagus roots exude a chemical that kills many of the nematodes (round worms) that either feed off tomato roots or carry disease to the plant. And tomatoes repel asparagus beetles, so the one is beneficial to the other.

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