With Saint Patrick's Day falling on a Saturday this year, I'm sure the traditional revelries will fill the entire weekend. There will be parades and parties galore, plus corned beef and cabbage and the inevitable green beer.
I always like to cook and serve something green for Saint Patrick's Day, and not just because green is the official color of the Irish people and their patron saint. That holiday also happens to fall just a few days before the first day of spring (Tuesday, March 20). So now is also the perfect opportunity to celebrate the season of the earth's renewal.
One of the highlights of the springtime harvest for me is the arrival of fresh local asparagus. And, yes, nowadays you can find asparagus in the markets virtually year-round thanks to international shipping. But the finest flavor and texture will almost always come from fresh asparagus grown closer to home and quickly whisked to market after harvest.
I especially like the so-called "pencil" asparagus. As the name applies, these spears are as thin as pencils, being harvested while still very young, and they have a subtle flavor and delicate texture that seems to me the essence of spring.
Pencil asparagus need very little in the way of preparation. All you have to do is rinse them and then bend them near their cut stem ends to snap off any woody part. They are so tender and mild that you can even serve them raw as part of a vegetable platter with dips. To cook them, they turn perfectly al dente, tender but still slightly crisp, after just a couple of minutes of steaming, boiling, grilling, or -- if first cut into bite-sized pieces -- stir-frying.
But one of my favorite ways to prepare these early crops of asparagus is to turn them into a subtly flavorful, beautiful pale green asparagus soup. For such a preparation, you just have to chop up the asparagus spears into small pieces and then simmer them in a mixture of mildly onion-scented broth and cream. (I also sometimes like to add a touch of honey, which gently highlights the vegetable's touch of natural sweetness.) Once the asparagus is tender, all that remains to do is puree it in a food processor or blender, pass it through a sieve to remove any fibers and achieve absolute smoothness, and then add a final accent of fresh lemon juice.
The result of this process that takes less than half an hour is a bright, light-green soup that tastes like springtime in a bowl. Serve it as the first course of your Saint Patrick's Day dinner this coming weekend -- and then go on enjoying it regularly as long as fresh asparagus is in season.
FRESH SPRINGTIME ASPARAGUS SOUP
1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
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