Tuesday, March 16, 2010

We'll always have asparagus

We don’t choose the touchstones of a romance, they choose us. The little jokes, the comments that are benign to others, but hysterically funny to just us, are part of our story. Rick and Ilsa had “As Time Goes By,” and they had Paris. Scott and Lucy had an oil refinery (more on that later) and we will always have asparagus.

Creamy asparagus soup by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Early in our courtship, we discovered that we liked to cook and tried to make meals together. I think we were putting together the ingredients for a stir-fry, and Scott bought asparagus. I probably said “eeww” because, truly, we eat what we’re fed at home and if your mother doesn’t eat asparagus, then neither do you. He told me I’d like it, and being a trusting sort of girl, I gave it a try. I was a convert from that first crispy, green, soy-drenched bite.

Since that time, I've stalked the verdant stalks like Euell Gibbons, savoring that earthy, mineral taste. But it's more than a taste and texture. Asparagus holds the promise of spring and renewal. That first bite in the early days of March shakes loose the heavy flavors of winter and prepares us for the produce yet to come. First asparagus, then blueberries, then tomatoes, zucchini, squash, all the abundance awaiting us. I look for the green stalks in early spring, and get embarrassingly giddy when they get nice and fat and the price drops.

Asparagus spears by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Each spring, when asparagus is plentiful, I make a sandwich that reminds me of our honeymoon, when we traveled to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. My husband’s uncle worked for the Hess Oil Refinery there and he treated us royally during our stay on the island. We ate at the best restaurants - I remember seafood at Top Hat, goat stew at the Buccaneer and conch fritters somewhere else. We snorkeled, we toured a historic sugar mill, we shopped for souvenirs, we saw the sights, concluding with every honeymooner's wish - a tour of the oil refinery. It was actually very interesting, just not what I expected to do on the trip - we’re probably the only couple who got a lecture in sweet light crude and other petroleum products on their honeymoon.

Back to the asparagus: down a narrow alleyway in Christiansted, we sat at a tiny restaurant for lunch. I wanted something simple like soup and a sandwich, found French onion soup and spied “asparagus sandwich” on the menu. I asked the waitress about it, and she said that it was a favorite dish of the cook’s. Keep in mind that I was a new bride and “asparagus sandwich” had the pleasant ring of girlie shower food. I ordered it. The soup was ok, but the sandwich was better. Sourdough bread, lightly toasted and spread with cream cheese, topped with steamed asparagus tips, sprouts and vinaigrette. I still make a version of this sandwich, and always think of St. Croix when I do. I’ve changed it up a little, losing the sprouts and seasoning the cream cheese.

asparagus sandwich
Asparagus Cream Cheese Sandwich by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Crucian Asparagus Sandwich

4 ounces cream cheese, softened
Tablespoon or two of chopped fresh chives
Salt and pepper to taste
2 slices sturdy white or wheat bread (for open face, 4 for lidded version)
8 to 10 asparagus tips, about 2 or 3 inches in length

1. Toast the bread to desired degree of brownness. Place asparagus tips in a microwave-safe container and cover with water. Zap for 1 minute. Carefully drain hot water from the asparagus and then cover with cold water and ice cubes to set the bright green color. Drain cooled stalks on paper towels. Stir together softened cream cheese, chives, salt and pepper.

2. Assemble sandwiches: Spread cream cheese on toast, and neatly align asparagus tips on top. This can be served open face (very pretty) or with a lid.

This little sandwich just cries out for a companion, like a bowl of Creamy Asparagus Soup, adapted from Julia Child’s “The Way to Cook.” It’s a convenient partner for the sandwich, using the stalks for the soup and some remaining tips for garnish. Notice that it’s “creamy” not “cream of.“ Instead of adding dairy, rice is cooked with the onion and then pureed to give body without adding the calories of cream. I like this trick because it doesn’t diminish the intensity of the asparagus, like cream would. The celadon color is enchanting.

Creamy Asparagus Soup
Creamy Asparagus Soup by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Creamy Asparagus Soup with Lemon Chive Butter

1 onion, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup long-grain rice
4 to 8 cups of stock - vegetable or chicken
1 bunch asparagus
Salt to taste, pepper if desired

1. In a saucepan, melt butter and saute onion until soft, but not brown. Season with a bit of salt (¼ teaspoon or so). Add rice and stir. Add four cups of stock , cover, and cook rice until nearly soft, about 10 to 15 minutes.

2. While rice is cooking, trim asparagus by removing the bottom ¼ of the stalks. Chop remainder into 2 inch pieces. Save the asparagus tips and place them in a bowl and cover with water. Zap in microwave for one minute. Pour off hot water, add cool water and ice cubes. When cool and color is set, dry on paper towels. Save for garnish.

3. When rice is soft, stir in asparagus stems and let cook for about 5 minutes, pulling it off the heat before it loses the brilliant green color. Blitz in food processor or blender until smooth. With the processor, this takes several minutes, until the puree fluffs up. Taste for seasoning and gradually add stock to desired consistency. I prefer a texture somewhere between thin puree and thick soup. A note on seasoning: I’m not a fan of white pepper - I think it tastes like soap, but if you need pepper in your soup, you may want to add it. I think salt is all the seasoning this needs, especially if you make the lemon chive butter.

Lemon Chive Butter

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon snipped chives
1 teaspoon or so fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Combine all ingredients.
2. Serve the soup, garnished with reserved asparagus tips and a spoonful of lemon butter.

Serve this meal in spring, and you may hear, just faintly through the night, a piano and a song, our song:

“You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

“And when two lovers woo
They still say, "I love you."
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.”

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