White asparagus and rhubarb soup

It is white asparagus season here in Germany! Those beautiful pale stalks are now gracing the local market stands, alongside some robust rhubarb… This spring I’ve been experimenting a bit with rhubarb in savoury applications with mostly pleasing results. There’s no reason its tartness can’t complement a creamy rosemary polenta or soup. Wild garlic pesto has, naturally, also been an April fridge staple. And I had some pumpernickel lying around, drying and begging to be used… and that is how this all-German-superstar meal was born. A simple white asparagus and rhubarb cream soup topped with a dollop of bright wild garlic pesto and dark, flavourful, crispy pumpernickel croutons (the soup below has non-pumpernickel croutons because I ran out before I got around to photographing them).

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Let’s take a minute to talk about soup. For me it’s one of those staple dishes that can be thrown together in “5 minutes” when you are lazy/bored/sick/busy or it can be an elaborate, elegant affair… creamy or chunky, hearty, comforting and warm or cold, bright and refreshing. So many directions you can take it. I notice for most soups, I’ve got it down to a simple procedure which goes as follows:

  1. Fry some onion and/or garlic and/or some dried herbs/spices until soft
  2. Add water/broth/coconut milk/tomato juice, bring to a boil
  3. Add grains/lentils/beans/veggies (in order of cooking time) and cook until soft
  4. At the end, remove from heat and purée if desired, or leave chunky
  5. Final touches: lemon juice/chopped fresh herbs/topping such as roasted nuts/chickpeas/sprouts/drizzle of oil

For extra creaminess, add any of the following while puréeing: soy/oat/coconut cream, almond/peanut butter, cooked white beans. You can also choose to blend some of the veggies (e.g. a creamy root vegetable base) and then throw in some fast cooking veggies after (broccoli/cauliflower/leafy greens) after for just a couple of a minutes to add texture and colour. Most important: use all your senses (smell, taste, hear, touch) and taste often! And don’t be shy with salt and fat — they bring out the flavour of the other ingredients.

If cooking has been an intimidating prospect, I think this soup procedure is a good place to start. It is forgiving and does not demand exact quantities and if you are mindful and taste along the way, it is rare to end up with something truly inedible at the end. At the worst it will be just “okay” and at best, a delicious, nourishing, home-cooked meal.

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I listened to an interview on The Sporkful podcast recently where Christopher Kimball said that cooking is hard, requiring a lot of time and experience to get right. My initial reaction was one of disagreement, as I tend to preach quite the opposite — that cooking at home doesn’t have to be a huge time-consuming chore, but can be simple and enjoyable. But then I realized that there is some truth in what was said. All those glossy, perfect-looking food blogs out there do make it seem impossibly easy to achieve stellar culinary heights, and the results at home often fall short, for many reasons: real food rarely looks as pretty as those food porn photos make it out to be; the recipe isn’t perfect because there are so many variables involved (quality and availability of ingredients/equipment, time, temperature) and giving precise instructions is hard; even if the recipe is good, following it can be a challenge. And in general, consistently achieving good results requires experience, patience and some dedication to master a set of ingredients or methods.

So yeah, cooking can be hard. But a good way to learn is to just step in the kitchen, put a pot on, pay attention, fail, adjust, try again, feel the joy of feeding yourself and your close ones, go to the market, get inspired, step in the kitchen…. so I thought I’d adjust the format of this blog slightly to empower, support and guide you through this process. I won’t always post precise recipes when exact quantities aren’t required (though sometimes, as in baking, they are) and leave you with more open-ended tips/guidelines/procedures which you can play with, learn from, and make your own.

The most important thing: cook what you like; let your food be an expression of yourself. Challenge your boundaries but stay true to yourself. Most of the culinary failures I’ve experienced have involved attempts with foreign ingredients or complicated, unfamiliar procedures that don’t come from the heart and have been forced in some subconscious way. Cooking, like most endeavours in life, requires mindfulness, self-awareness and respect for yourself, your ingredients and all other beings that are involved in the meal.

 


White Asparagus and Rhubarb Soup

If not serving with wild garlic pesto, then add a clove of two of garlic in with the onion at the beginning. White asparagus can be very fibrous, and unlike its green counterpart, does need to be peeled — I don’t recommend skipping this step. Fresh asparagus will yield the tastiest, smoothest results with minimal fibre/woody pieces in the soup in the end.

Serves ~4-6

500g white asparagus, peeled, trimmed and chopped. Reserve the tips for the end!
300g rhubarb, chopped
1 medium onion (100-150g) or a few shallots
~2 teaspoons dried rosemary
Olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan
~1 L vegetable broth
Salt and pepper to taste
A few splashes of white wine, optional
250ml soy/oat cream or one 400g can white beans, drained — optional, for extra creaminess

Heat the oil over medium heat, add the onion and rosemary and sauté till soft. If you have some wine on hand, add a few splashes and cook for a minute with the onion. Then add the broth, bring to a boil and add the asparagus and rhubarb, reserving the asparagus tips on the side. Simmer until the vegetables are tender, around 20-30 minutes. Take of the heat and purée with a hand blender until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. For an extra creamy soup, add some soy/oat cream or a can of white beans (with maybe a bit of extra water) and blend again. To serve, ladle into bowls, drizzle some olive oil on top, dollop a bit of wild garlic (or other) pesto and sprinkle with pumpernickel croutons (instructions below).

Soup croutons
Most cooks instruct you to cut the crust off the bread for croutons. I love crust so I don’t bother. In either case, cut the bread into cubes. Whisk together a bit of olive oil, good mustard (I used a sweet, slightly grainy Bavarian mustard for this soup), salt and pepper and then toss with the bread to coat. Spread on a baking sheet and bake at 180 degrees for 10 minutes, stir, then bake some more on slightly higher heat till they get nice and well toasted.

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