Easy asparagus soup

Easy asparagus soup takes advantage of the best flavors of the "Grand Dame of spring." (Special to The Baltimore Sun, Photo and styling by John Houser III / May 16, 2012)

Overcooking is what kills asparagus for most people. Memories of gray, limp and pungent spears follow wary eaters like ghosts from a nightmare.

But when treated right, asparagus is a versatile and complex vegetable. Its flavor profile can switch from green and grassy to sweet and nutty just depending on how it's cooked. That's why so many chefs love to put this "grande dame of spring" on their menus.

Ben Simpkins, the executive chef at Richardson Farms in White Marsh, makes an asparagus "cappuccino," in which a cup half-filled with hot asparagus soup is topped with cold asparagus foam made by shooting the cold soup through a whipped-cream gun.

"I love asparagus, and this is my favorite dish," says Simpkins. "Our customers buy it as fast as we grow it."

Jesse Sandlin, sous chef at Pazo restaurant in Baltimore and former "Top Chef" contestant, takes a straightforward approach when not at work. "Usually, if I'm making asparagus at home, I try to keep it pretty simple: just a quick blanch in salty water, a shock in ice water, toss it in olive oil and salt and throw it on the grill with steak."

She says the main thing to remember is to "just be careful not to overcook it and turn it into a pile of stringy mush."

In our "From the Harvest" series, we'll show how to cook some of the season's most in-the-moment produce, which you'll be able to find at its freshest at our area's ever-growing farmers' market scene.

To kick off, we've come up with three simple and delicious recipes that will change the minds of the asparagus non-believers while showing the already dedicated new ways of cooking this summery gem.

Grilled asparagus in a warm kimchi bacon emulsion

The name of this dish may scare some away, but it is easy to make and unbelievably delicious. Kimchi is Korean fermented and spiced cabbage used frequently as a condiment; think sauerkraut meets hot sauce. At full strength, it would interfere with the asparagus in this dish, but when pureed with the oil left over from cooking the bacon it mellows out and becomes a creamy yet spicy accent to the nutty grilled asparagus. The kimchi may cool the bacon oil enough to make the sauce a bit clumpy. Don't worry: when mixed with the hot asparagus, the sauce will become silky again. The bacon bits add crunch and bacon-y goodness. This might not look like the healthiest asparagus dish and it isn't, but you won't be using all of the kimchi/bacon emulsion (unless you want to).

Makes: 4 servings

3 ounces kimchi

8 ounces thick-cut bacon chopped into 1/4-inch wide lardons

1 bunch asparagus (woody stems removed)

1/3 cup bacon grease reserved from cooking the bacon

Salt and pepper

In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, add the bacon and render the oil out for 20 minutes while stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking. When the bacon bits are brown and crispy, strain the oil into a glass or metal ramekin and let it cool for 10 minutes. Combine the kimchi, 1/3 cup of the bacon oil and a pinch of salt into a small food processor and blend until smooth, taking the time to scrape the sides down once or twice to get any chunks of kimchi out of the sauce. Reserve the sauce to the side until needed (this can be done a day ahead of time if needed). On a rocket-hot grill pan on the stove or on an actual grill (charcoal hopefully) grill the asparagus spears all over, creating char spots and cooking it to where it is still a bit crunchy. When the asparagus is finished cooking and still hot, chop the spears into 1-inch long pieces. Transfer the asparagus to a metal bowl and toss with the kimchi emulsion and half of the bacon bits. Serve immediately and garnish with the remaining bacon bits.

Tip: Make double or even triple of the kimchi emulsion to use with other items for your dinner. It makes an incredible condiment for hamburgers and hot dogs as well as a fun warm dip for crudites.

Asparagus soup