Friday, May 23, 2014

Don't Step on the Grass...

But no, not that grass in the lawn. And, no, not that either.

You may know it as asparagus, but come mid-May around here, it's simply grass. Hadley grass, to be specific. Hadley, on the rich floodplains just across the Connecticut River and hair north of here, is world-renowned for its asparagus. Or at least it was, up until the 1970s, when a soil-borne fungus more than literally decimated Hadley's asparagus production. In the decades leading up to that, Hadley farmers would pick and prepare up to 50 tons of asparagus each day of the fleetingly brief few weeks of the season. Hadley grass reportedly turned up in chic European restaurants and even at springtime feasts held by the Queen of England.

Although local asparagus production doesn't take on the epic proportions it did forty years ago, there are still a handful of asparagus farmers in full-scale production and many backyard growers with extra to sell. The town still takes pride in this element of its history, honoring the tender green spears with a major community festival and, I kid you not, an ice cream flavor. And, as it's an ingredient where freshness is especially rewarded, it's still worth trawling the back roads in Hadley and the surrounding towns this time of year for hand-written signs that simply read "Grass." Or, if you're me, quietly coveting the asparagus in the adjacent community garden plot and settling for taking many pictures of it and then buying a bunch from the stand just up the hill.

So, why simply grass? One variant, based on a folk etymology of the word, dating back to the 17th century, was sparrowgrass. The name held on until late in the 1800s, and, according to a 1791 pronunciation dictionary, calling it "asparagus" implied "an air of stiffness and pedantry." I can't say for certain why it stuck around here, but even aside from a desire to avoid stiffness and pedantry, it was grown in sufficient volume that it was almost as common as that grass in the lawn.

Asparagus being as versatile as it is and asparagus season being as fleeting as it is, I've been chowing through it every which way since the first local asparagus came in about two weeks ago. I was thinking of writing about asparagus and chèvre risotto or lemony shaved asparagus salad, but today's cool, rainy weather put me in a soup mood so I put together a creamy, smooth asparagus soup, accented with dried shiitake mushroom and white wine and topped with the asparagus tips, toasted with slivered garlic.

Creamy Asparagus-Mushroom Soup

gluten/grain-free, optionally vegetarian
  • 1 lb. asparagus
  • 1 onion, small dice
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 6-8 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1¼ c. dry white wine
  • ½ c. cream
  • 2 c. chicken or veggie broth
You have two options with the dried shiitakes: you can grind them up and add them as a powder, or you can simmer them in the stock until they're soft enough to blend. If you're simmering them in stock, start that first. Break up the mushrooms coarsely with your hands and put them in a small saucepan with the broth and bring up to heat over medium-high heat. The mushrooms will need to simmer for at least 15-20 minutes to soften. If grinding them up, run them through a spice grinder until fine and set aside.

Dice onion. Melt butter with olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat, then add onion, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, peel and mince two cloves of garlic and prep the asparagus. Snap off both ends of the asparagus (this is a good job for earnest helpers of all ages and abilities). If you're running short on time, you can cut off the top and bottom inch of the spears in one fell swoop. Scrap the cut ends, but put the tips aside to put on top later. Cut the stalks into pieces about an inch long.

Once the onion has started to get clear and soft, add the garlic, salt and asparagus. Stir until the garlic gets fragrant, then add a cup of wine. If simmering mushrooms, add the mushrooms and broth, too. If using ground mushrooms, whisk with the stock and add to the pot with the asparagus. Let simmer until the asparagus is soft, 10-15 minutes, add the cream and remaining wine, then blend until smooth.

Sliver the other two cloves of garlic and saute in a little olive oil with the asparagus tips and salt and pepper. Serve soup with garlicky asparagus tips on top.

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