Sunday, 20 April 2014

Marcel Proust | Cream of Asparagus Soup + Roasted Asparagus

Some books you just never get to read - despite best intentions! Some books change with us and so does our appreciation of them when we realise they no longer hold the same appeal. And then, there are those long-forgotten books that still echo in our mind in fragments of thought, in scattered words, and we read with new eyes.

I started Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust years ago when I was studying European Literature but put it down 100 pages later; it seemed too long and I too impatient. I picked it up again recently, partly to check out a quote and partly out of nostalgia for my own lost time, and found myself entangled in a weave of surging memories, melancholic episodes and philosophic reflections.

It's a bewildering book: not just because of the long sentences, the endless digressions and meanderings, the painfully slow-moving narrative but because I couldn't help feeling captivated by the subtleness and sensuality of Proust's style.
I would stop by the table, where the kitchen-maid had shelled them, to inspect the platoons of peas, drawn up in ranks and numbered, like little green marbles, ready for a game; but what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet - still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed - with an iridescence that was not of this world. 
Édouard Manet, Bunch of Asparagus

Édouard Manet, Asparagus

There's an interesting story behind Manet's asparagus paintings, which shows the wit and irony we often encounter in his work, but which also provides a link to Proust's novel. Manet's A Bunch of Asparagus was commissioned by Charles Ephrussi, a Jewish-French art critic, art historian and art collector. The two men agreed upon the price of 800 francs for the painting, but Ephrussi overpaid the artist by 200 francs. To rectify this, Manet painted a single asparagus spear and sent it to Ephrussi  with a note saying: "This one was missing from your bunch".
I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form and who, through the disguise of their firm, comestible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare's Dream) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.

Charles Ephrussi was one of the inspirations for the figure of Charles Swann in Proust's book.
Poor Giotto's Charity, as Swann had named her, charged by Françoise with the task of preparing them for the table, would have them lying beside her in a basket, while she sat there with a mournful air as though all the sorrows of the world were heaped upon her; and the light crowns of azure which capped the asparagus shoots above their pink jackets were delicately outlined, star by star, as, in Giotto's fresco, are the flowers encircling the brow or patterning the basket of his Virtue at Padua.
 Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way
(trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin)

This is a luxurious, velvety and incredibly tasty soup which is so simple to make with just a handful of ingredients. And I love its vibrant colours and exuberant disposition! The addition of roasted asparagus is what, I think, sets it apart but it is wonderfully flavourful without it as well.

~ Cream of Asparagus Soup + Roasted Asparagus~

Asparagus Soup:
650 g asparagus
2-3 tbsp olive oil
15 g unsalted butter
1 lt chicken stock
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small potato, cubed
1 tbsp plain flour
grated Parmesan cheese
salt & pepper

Roasted Asparagus:
200 g thin asparagus spears, divided
3 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
2 tbsp shaved Parmesan cheese
flaked salt
1-2 tsp lemon juice (optional)

Prepare the soup:
Rinse the asparagus. Trim the woody ends from the bottom of the spears. Cut the tips off and put aside, then cut the spears into 2.5 cm pieces. I was left with 500 g asparagus.

Heat the butter and oil in a large saucepan over a medium high heat. Add the onion and garlic and fry gently for about 5 minutes, until soft and sweet, without colouring. Add the chopped asparagus stalks and the cubed potato and cook for 4 minutes, stirring frequently, then add the tips and cook for 2 minutes until they are bright green but not browned. Stir in the flour until incorporated.

Add 4/5 of the stock and bring to the boil over a high heat, skimming off any foam that rises to the surface. Simmer over medium heat for 3-5 minutes until the asparagus is tender but crisp.

Reserve 12-16 asparagus tips for garnish. Season with salt, cover and continue cooking for about 15-20 minutes, until very tender.

At this stage, you can remove the soup from the heat and, using a blender, whiz until finely blended. But I like to add some roasted asparagus (recipe follows) before blending to enhance the flavour. If, while blending, you find the soup is too thick, you can add more stock. Adjust the salt and return to the heat for a few more minutes.

Serve warm with some grated Parmesan cheese, freshly ground pepper and French bread. Garnish with the reserved asparagus tips and serve the remaining roasted asparagus as a side-dish.

Prepare the roasted asparagus:
Heat the oven to 190 degrees C.

Rinse the asparagus and trim the woody ends from the bottom of the spears.

Place the asparagus in a roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil, then toss to coat completely. Spread the asparagus in a single layer and tug the garlic slices between the spears. Sprinkle liberally with flaked salt, pepper and 1 tbsp shaved Parmesan cheese.

Roast on the top rack of the oven until just tender, for 10-12 minutes, turning the asparagus once half-way through.

Remove about 10-12 roasted asparagus spears, roughly chop them and add to the soup before blending.

Sprinkle the rest of the roasted asparagus with lemon juice and the remaining Parmesan cheese just before serving.

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