Chef Joshua Mather grew up on Easter Orchard Farm in Wells, just a few short miles from the hyper-local farm-to-table restaurant he now runs, the eponymous Joshua’s. The restaurant relies heavily on produce that his parents grow. The asparagus he uses to make this soup, for instance, comes from a patch his father planted in 1972 that “we are still harvesting.” Mather serves the creamy, vibrantly colored soup for just a few weeks a year, during Maine’s fleeting asparagus season. To make it, he uses all parts of the asparagus – peel, tough bottoms and tender stalks – treating each slightly differently: The peels infuse the stock with the grassy taste of asparagus. The trimmed bottom cores simmer with the stock from the start, while the tender stalks, which require the least cooking, are added last.
In 2011, Mather won the farm-to-table category in Portland’s Harvest on the Harbor Festival, but when we spoke on the phone in late April, he brushed over the honor, wanting instead to talk about the challenges of farm-to-table restaurant cooking in Maine after the very long winter. Customers “are jonesing for spring. Brussels sprouts are out,” he said. But in Wells, Maine, that afternoon, local fiddleheads, peas or asparagus couldn’t be had for love or money.
CREAM OF ASPARAGUS SOUP
“When buying asparagus, I’m always looking for the thick stuff, the thicker the better,” Mather wrote in an email that accompanied his recipe. “At most farmers markets, the asparagus is of varying size, which is wonderful because that’s how I can tell it’s not mass-produced to be pencil thin and less flavorful.” This soup changes character, depending on the garnish, from minced chives, crushed pink peppercorn or mushroom ragout to “just about anything really.” Mather’s favorite garnish is cheddar cheese; he ladles the soup into oven-proof bowls and broils it to melt the cheese.
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds asparagus
1 cup chopped onion
1 shallot, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and cracked black pepper, to taste
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups roughly chopped spinach
Zest from half a lemon
Pinch cayenne pepper
Prep the asparagus: Peel thickly, then snap off the woody bottoms, reserving both peel and bottoms separately; you should have 2 cups of the peelings and 1 cup of peeled bottom cores. Chop the remaining tender asparagus spears into 1-inch segments and reserve separately; you’ll have about 2 cups of these.
Slowly saute the onion, shallot and garlic in olive oil over low heat in a Dutch oven with a good-sized pinch of salt and pepper. Cook about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until they’re translucent Add the trimmed asparagus bottom cores and continue to cook, stirring, for another 10 minutes.
In a separate pot, combine the asparagus peelings and the stock and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes. Strain the stock and discard the trimmings. Add the strained stock to the onion mixture in the Dutch oven. Simmer for about 15 minutes.
Add the cream and the 1-inch asparagus spears. Season the soup with the zest, spices and more salt and pepper. Return to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes. Transfer the soup to a blender. On low speed and working in batches (don’t overfill the blender with hot soup), blend the soup while adding handfuls of the spinach. The spinach will cook in the hot soup, turning it “crazy green,” Mather said, and rounding out the flavors of asparagus.
Once the soup is smooth, rewarm it gently and serve.