Saturday, March 15, 2008
Every year, when spring arrives and I revisit my dilemma regarding what to do with the perfect asparagus on the shelves at the store, I am reminded what I am always chasing. Some people have dreams, goals, who knows. I have soup. An asparagus soup, which haunts me like no other food I have ever known. I have spent a lifetime inching my way back to the taste of a winter evening in Paris just after Christmas when I was nineteen and on my own in Europe for the first time. I was terribly homesick for my family and I had not yet developed the curiosity about food which has been my mind's safe harbor through any difficulty, but that soup may have been the place where that trait took its first steps.
It was the Hotel George V, in the restaurant So-and-So, or what I assume is called Le Cinq, though I cannot remember the name specifically and I am not aware if Le Cinq has been there long enough to be the place in question. But it was indeed a restaurant in Le Cinq's current space. The soup was a creamy green and gold tone, it nearly glowed in the low shallow bowl. "Asparagus Soup with Shaved Lamb," it was called, or something to that effect in French. Can you imagine anything more promising of springtime than that bowl? And there it was, with it's miniature quenelle of creme fraiche, one small perfect chive, and a pyramid of perfectly shaved roasted lamb pulled into small shreds.
The soup tasted like a walk through a fresh spring afternoon: A little crisp, and grassy, but with something altogether new in its wings. Finally, it rushed out creamy and buttery. It delivered the Parisian spring to your palate. If one asked the Captain what spring was like in Paris, he might have just had the bowl set before you and slipped away into the vast magnificence of that hotel, knowing there was nothing more he could have done or said to accurately demonstrate the season of youth and newness. How they must have concentrated to arrive at that soup. It was surely everything spring and it resonates still. It is a testament to the clarity of one's memories of spring that soup was created at all, and a testament to the purity of the creation that my mind has never let go of that bowl.
I have tried to recreate that soup each spring and not so much failed as not arrived at the top of the same peak. Some of them have been very, very lovely soups. Some have been worthy of a chow line in prison. Some have been happy middlers: The mousy girl of the soup universe. This years' is one to warm your heart on a rainy cold spring day. Intentionally, taking after my dreamy Parisian ghost, it is closer to a puree than a true soup. I am still not there but I have arrived at an enchanting soup. At times since that night in Paris, I have been almost relieved not to have recreated the soup, the elusiveness of that thing is surely part of the engine which keeps me here with you, trying and experimenting, and sharing. It is also quite possible no soup will ever again be my soup (though, I am not supposed to have that information if you and I are to have any hope of carrying on the way we do). It may never be as good anywhere as it is in Paris, in that old and refined hotel, where they keep my spring.
Asparagus Soup, 2008
4 tbls butter, divided
1 1/2 lbs aspargus, cleaned, woody bottom stalk removed, cut into 1 inch bits
1 shallot, sliced
1 tbls. thyme
3 cups chicken stock, warmed
1/2 cup dry white wine, at room temperature
2 tbls. cream
Creme fraiche to top to your liking
In a wide pan over medium heat, allow 2 tbls. butter to melt in the pan. Add shallots, saute until translucent. Add asparagus bits and saute 5 mintues until bright green. Add thyme, season with salt and white pepper. Allow to saute 2 more minutes. Add stock and wine, bring to a simmer and allow to cook at the simmer for 5 minutes. Cool until luke warm. Place soup in blender and buzz until it is the consistency of fine puree with no noticeable bits remaining. Pour soup back into the pan and heat gently again to steaming. Add cream and butter, still until combined and butter is dissolved. Retaste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed. Serve with a bit of creme fraiche in the center of the bowl.