Monday, May 9, 2011

The Soup Project: Garlic-Asparagus Soup with Smokey Blue Cheese

I started dreaming up this asparagus soup recipe before I knew whether my main ingredient would actually be at the market on Saturday.

Earlier in the week, All Recipes had sent out a link for their asparagus recipes. That started me dreaming about asparagus and combining ingredients, but the truth is I'd been thinking about asparagus ever since I heard asparagus was in season (and in trouble) in California. I get worried about our food supply whenever the weather turns sour or I hear a crop may be in trouble elsewhere.

Anyway, I was happy to see the market sign that said Canales Farm from eastern Washington was back at the market. The only thing Canalas Farm brings to the market is asparagus in the spring, now it's all certified organic.

The asparagus was bundled in 1 pound bundles, but the price had shot up to $5 this year. I stopped and stared at the $5 sign--up by a dollar a pound since last year. My $100 food budget shrinks daily and I suddenly felt hunger pangs. My visions of buying two pounds of asparagus suddenly morphed into how can I make one pound work for two in this recipe? But if you're thinking of trying this strategy yourself to save $5, don't do it because as soon as I counted the asparagus tips, I ended up buying another half pound because the roasted tips and smokey blue cheese make this soup into a culinary masterpiece. I wonder if someone hasn't already thought it up.

Asparagus as one of those vegetables totally worth the price so pony up the asking price and don't go cheap with asparagus. Consider buying this vegetable a splurge, if you are working with a food budget.

Back at home, I scanned the internet for inspiration but the recipes were mostly all the same--chicken stock, cream, asparagus, lemon,--not bad, just not inspired so why copy them?

Next, I checked Jill Nussinow's The New Fast Food and Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day for inspiration. Jill's recipes made me want to use my pressure cooker for this recipe, and one of Heidi's recipes made me think about adding cheese. (Heidi had another one with Gorgonzola cheese from an older blog post that also caught my eye). I ended up flipping through my own book and I decided to rework my Garlic-Asparagus Soup recipe.

A Word About Ingredients

As I gathered the ingredients for a group photo, I realized it's important to mention that I tend use mostly fresh ingredients. Notice how I included a real lemon and fresh garlic in the photo. These ingredients can also be found in bottles and jars, but I've never used those kinds of processed products. Bottled garlic, lemon, lime, or ginger never tastes the same as fresh versions and in fact, the bottled ginger at PCC Natural Markets and probably Whole Foods and Trader Joe's too, comes from China, so check labels before you put any in your cart. And really, how good can bottled lemon juice, garlic or ginger be? If you substitute processed for fresh because it's convenient, it my just bite you in the end and will not improve your recipe outcome.

The shallots came from Let Us Farm, another favorite returning farm vendor at the market; the brown rice miso came from Southriver Miso, my favorite miso maker. I forgot to buy mushrooms at the marketon Saturday, so the organic crimini mushrooms and the lemon came from a natural foods store.

I mentioned that Heidi's soup recipe made me consider cheese, but the recipe in her book listed cheddar cheese and I wanted a power player with a lot of flavor yet a compliment to asparagus. Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue came to mind. Smoked for 16 hours over hazelnut shells, this cheese has quintessential Northwest spring flavor written all over it. You can find this savory smokey blue cheese at PCC Natural Markets or Whole Foods. I consider it another splurge for the week.

Cheese and other dairy products give me a stuffy nose, so I usually leave them out of my recipes nowdays, but I've been known to suffer for good cheese and this is one of those times.

My Cooking Assistant willfully suffers for any cheese. He wanted to help out with the photos, but he could barely hold himself back from taking a bite of this excellent cheese.

See this special paper I got at Rogue Creamery last summer when I visited the shop in southern Oregon? I wrap all my cheese in these waxed papers now because good cheese should never be kept in plastic.

The soup is made with pressure cooked pureed asparagus stalks and potatoes, but you could easily just simmer the potatoes and stalks in a saucepan. I dry fried the mushrooms (cooked them in a skillet with no oil), sautéed the shallots, and roasted the asparagus for this soup.

It's fun to treat an ingredient like royalty.

Here is the recipe:

Garlic-Asparagus Soup with Smokey Blue Cheese
(Serves 4)
A head of garlic sounds like a lot of garlic, but it blends well in this recipe, in fact you barely notice it because it blends so well with the other ingredients. (Do not substitute garlic from jar or or lemon from a bottle.) The recipe in my cookbook also lists almond butter and a carrot. The almond butter is for a rich mouth feel; the carrot is for color. Those ingredients are replaced with a small garnet yam and Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue Cheese.

1 1/2 pounds of asparagus, tough ends removed (snap off ends where they naturally break)
3 or 4 Yukon Gold potatoes, dark blemishes removed, washed and diced
1 head garlic, cloves separated, peeled and pressed or minced
4 to 5 cups water
3 to 4 cups sliced crimeni mushrooms
1 to 2 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/2 cup diced shallots, onions or leeks
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped Mama Lil's peppers or green salsa (optional)
2 tablespoons rolled oats
1 small garnet yam, washed and diced small
1/4 cup white miso
Fresh lemon juice to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 to 1/2 cup crumbled Rogue Creamery Smoky Blue Cheese

1. Break 3 inches of asparagus tips from the stalks and set aside. Break the stalks into smaller pieces and place them with the potatoes, garlic and four cups of water in a pressure cooker. Reserve the remaining water to add later. Lock the lid in place and bring to pressure. Cook for 2 minutes. Let pressure reduce naturally, and work on the other ingredients while pressure reduces.

2. Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, stir and cook until they lose their moisture. Cook for about a minute longer, then remove from heat and place in a bowl. Put the skillet back on the burner, add shallots, peppers and oil. Stir and cook until shallots become soft and slightly caramelized. Remove from heat and place with the mushrooms.

3. Preheat oven to 350 F. Lay asparagus tips in a baking pan. Drizzle with a little canola or olive oil and roast until tender--about 10 minutes. Remove from oven; set aside.

4. Puree the cooked potatoes and asparagus. Reserve 1 cup and return the remainder to pressure cooker and add rolled oats and diced garnet yam. (This is where you see the value of size; the smaller the chunks of yam, the sooner they'll cook and you'll get your soup.) Cook for about 10 minutes.

5. Combine the miso with the remaining water. Blend well. When the yams are soft, add the cooked shallots, mushrooms, and asparagus tips and gently heat for about a minute. Add the miso and then a squeeze or two of lemon, and a dash of salt and pepper to taste.

5. Garnish with Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue Cheese.

As you can see, I forgot to garnish the soup before I snapped this picture, but it's best not to tease a Cooking Assistant twice in one day. Just don't forget to add it to your soup because it is the crown jewel of this recipe. Enjoy!

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