On a recent Sunday I hit the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, where I found asparagus and…asparagus and…more asparagus. OK—I’m exaggerating a little; I also bought a bunch of baby turnips and some rosy radishes, and there were tender salad greens, too, but it was pretty clear who the star of the show is right now.
Normally I don’t fuss much with asparagus. I just slice off the tough ends—yes, I slice rather than snap because I prefer the tidier appearance of straight-cut ends—steam the spears until they are crisp-tender and emerald, and dress them lightly with olive oil, lemon juice, freshly ground pepper, and sea salt. Or I coat them in a little olive oil and grill or roast them. Sometimes I slice them on the diagonal into two-inch pieces and saute them quickly in a little butter and olive oil, then sprinkle freshly grated parmigiano on top.
But on a cool spring night, I like to take a little time to make cream of asparagus soup. There is a gentle quality to this soup that, not surprisingly, I find especially appealing when I’m feeling stressed out or overwhelmed by work—which is to say, often (and I know I’m far from alone here). The prep work is easy and methodical, and sitting down to a bowl of fresh in-season asparagus soup, flavored with spring onion and sweetened with fennel, really does soothe my nerves. A good bowl of soup can do that.
What makes this good bowl of soup even better is that it has a little cooked barley stirred into it. The barley, and some freshly grated pecorino cheese, add just the right amount of substance to elevate the soup to main dish status.
I confess a silly, sentimental attachment to this soup. It comes from my first cookbook, The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy. Of course I knew when I was writing the book and creating the recipes for it, that people would eventually be cooking from it—at least I hoped so. One of them turned out to be Guy Hand, whom I met at the Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the Greenbrier. Guy is a writer, photographer, and radio producer, and really good at all of it. Not only did Guy cook from the book; he took the time to email me to tell me that he liked the recipe, and he attached the picture below. At one time it was a large file, but somewhere along the way I messed things up (tech wiz that I am) and all I have is this small version. Even so, it’s lovely, and to me it perfectly captures the gentle spirit of this soup. Thank you, Guy, and Buon Appetito!
From The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy (by Domenica Marchetti, Chronicle Books, 2006)
- 6 cups water
- Kosher or sea salt
- 1 cup pearled barley, rinsed
- 2 pounds asparagus
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 spring onions, bulbs and tender white part of stalks sliced crosswise (about 1 cup)
- 1 small fennel bulb, trimmed, quartered lengthwise, quarters thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
- 6 cups vegetable or chicken broth
- 1 cup freshly shredded pecorino romano cheese
Put the barley on to cook before you start the soup. In a large saucepan, combine the water and 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Slowly pour in the barley. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 45 minutes, or until the barley is tender but still a little bit chewy. It should not be mushy at all. Reduce the heat if necessary so that the barley cooks at a gently, steady simmer. Drain the barley in a colander placed in the sink and let it sit for 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork and set aside.
While the barley is cooking, trim off the tough ends from the asparagus and discard them (or add them to the pot in which you are heating the broth to enhance its flavor; remove them before adding the broth to the soup). Cut the asparagus stalks into 1-inch pieces. Set aside the tips. You should have about 4 1/2 cups asparagus pieces, not including the tips.
In a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil and butter over medium heat. Add the spring onions and fennel, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring from time to time, for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are softened. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir vigorously to combine. Pour in 1 cup of the broth and stir for a minute or so to incorporate thoroughly. Slowly pour in the remaining 5 cups of broth and add the asparagus pieces---except for the reserved tips---and the parsley sprigs. Increase the heat to medium and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until all the vegetables are tender. Remove from the heat and let the soup cool for 10 minutes.
Using a hand blender or a stand blender, puree the soup (in batches if you're using a stand blender). Strain the soup through a fine-mesh sieve to remove any tough fibers and return it to the pot. Stir in the cooked barley and reheat the soup over low heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
While the soup is heating, put the reserved asparagus tips in a steaming basket placed in a pot of boiling water, cover, and steam for 4 to 5 minutes, or until just tender. Or put the tips in a plastic storage bag along with 1 tablespoon water. Set teh open bag in a microwave oven and cook on high for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the tips are bright green and just tender.
To serve the soup, stir in 3/4 cup of the cheese. Ladle the soup into a large serving bowl or tureen and top with the reserved asparagus tips and the remaining 1/4 cup cheese. You can also serve the soup in individual bowls, garnishing each serving with a few asparagus tips and a sprinkle of cheese.