When shopping for asparagus, people often focus on the wrong thing — how thick the stalks are. They think thinner is better.
Truth is, asparagus can be delicious regardless of how thick it is. More important is how fresh the asparagus is. That's where the flavour is. Freshly-harvested asparagus boasts a smooth, firm stalk and a tight tip. When asparagus is past its prime, the stalk starts to wrinkle and the tip begins spreading out like a feather.
But vigilance for freshness doesn't stop at the store. Once you get it home, you need to keep it fresh. The best way to store asparagus is to place the stalks with the ends down in a bit of water in the refrigerator. If you lack that kind of room, at least wrap the bottoms of the stalks in wet paper towels. They should last three or four days this way.
Regardless of how you plan to cook the asparagus, the first step in prepping it is to get rid of the woody part of the stem at the bottom of the stalks, either by breaking or cutting it. But don't toss them out. I used to do this, but I've discovered they have a use! In this soup, I add them to the broth to help infuse it with flavour, then discard them.
If I'm working with asparagus that is more than a 1/3-inch thick, I usually peel the stems to ensure even cooking from the tip to the bottom of the stalk. But we're making soup here, which means we're going to puree the asparagus, so there's no need to peel. In fact, we want those peels. They help to give the soup a bright green colour.
Speaking of colour, it also helps to barely cook the asparagus before pureeing it, and to reheat it only briefly after it is pureed. In general, the longer a green vegetable cooks, the greyer it becomes.
What makes this soup without cream so creamy? It's the pureed vegetables that do the trick, not only the asparagus, but also the onion and that one lone Yukon Gold potato.
By the way, this soup is equally good hot or cold. It's a spring thing.
FRESH AND "CREAMY" ASPARAGUS SOUP WITH TARRAGON
Start to finish: 40 minutes
1 1/2 pounds asparagus (about 1 1/2 bunches)
1 3/4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 3/4 cups water
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup thinly sliced yellow onion
1 small Yukon Gold potato (about 6 ounces), peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Ground black pepper
Chopped fresh tarragon, to serve
Croutons, to serve
Cut off the bottom woody ends of the asparagus, rinsing them if they are dirty and reserve them. Cut off the tips of the asparagus and set them aside. Chop the stems into 1-inch lengths.
In a medium saucepan bring the broth and water to a boil. Add the asparagus tips and simmer until they are crisp tender, 1 to 3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a bowl. Set aside.
Add the reserved woody ends to the liquid, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a second medium saucepan over medium, heat the oil. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.
Pour the asparagus stock through a strainer into the saucepan with the onion, pressing on the asparagus ends to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the ends.
Add the potatoes and salt to the saucepan and simmer until the potatoes are tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the chopped asparagus stalks, then bring the stock to a boil and simmer until the stems are barely blanched, 1 minute for thin stalks, 2 minutes for medium stalks and 3 minutes for thick stalks.
Working in batches, transfer the mixture to a blender and carefully blend until smooth, transferring the soup as it is pureed to the empty saucepan. Stir in reserved asparagus tips and the lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper, then continue cooking just until heated through. Divide between serving bowls and top each portion with tarragon and croutons.
Nutrition information per serving: 230 calories; 130 calories from fat (57 per cent of total calories); 14 g fat (2 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 5 mg cholesterol; 22 g carbohydrate; 5 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 6 g protein; 320 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."