Aspirational asparagus

Easy asparagus soup takes advantage of the best flavors of the "Grand Dame of spring."
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)

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

This is a soup for people who are scared to make soup. It's dead simple to make but with enough flavor to keep your guests guessing which cookbook you got it from. Don't use a dark-colored stock, which will ruin the wonderful color of the soup. You can serve this hot or cold, but if you are serving it cold, add a little more salt; the cold deadens the taste buds a bit.

Makes: 4 servings

1 quart vegetable or chicken stock

2 bunches asparagus, roughly chopped (remove and reserve woody stems)

1 stalk of celery, sliced thinly

1 bunch scallions

5 cloves garlic

1/4 fresh nutmeg (or 1/8 teaspoon powdered)

1 ounce of butter

sour cream for garnish

salt and pepper to taste

Bring a stock pot filled with the stock to a boil. Add the woody stems and turn down the heat to medium. Simmer stems for 20-30 minutes to infuse the stock with asparagus flavor. Take the stems out of the stock with a slotted spoon. Cut the tips off of the asparagus. Slice the tips thinly and reserve as a garnish. Melt butter over medium heat, then add scallions, garlic, celery. Add a pinch of salt and sweat the vegetables over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Add stock, nutmeg and asparagus and cook for 20 minutes. In a blender, puree soup until smooth. Season the soup with salt and pepper to taste. Serve in a bowl with a dollop of sour cream and the reserved asparagus tips as garnish.

Tip: To Make this soup a main course, just follow my motto for this summer and "put an egg on it." The egg, poached or fried, adds richness and texture without taking away from the soup.

Shaved asparagus with prosciutto and poached egg on toast

This dish is spring on a plate. The fresh, raw asparagus is surprisingly mellowed by the egg and the olive oil. The addition of Prosciutto di San Daniele was a recommendation by Joe DiPasquale, owner of DiPasquales in Highlandtown, who informed me that "it's sweeter than Prosciutto di Parma and would be great with the asparagus." He was absolutely right; the prosciutto added depth to the dish. Make sure the extra virgin olive oil you choose is fresh and vibrant tasting to accentuate the flavor of the asparagus. DiPasquale suggested Coluccio brand extra-virgin olive oil, which had a peppery aftertaste and paired wonderfully with the other flavors of the dish.

Makes: 1 serving

5 spears of asparagus (woody bottoms removed and shaved with a vegetable peeler into thin oblong discs)

1 large egg

3 slices of Prosciutto di San Daniele (or any other prosciutto), sliced extra thin

1 slice of crusty Italian bread cut 1 inch thick

extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper

1 tablespoon vinegar

To a sauce pot of water, add the vinegar and a pinch of salt. Bring water to a small simmer. Crack the egg into a ramekin and then gently slide the egg into the water. Cook for 2-3 minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon to a cloth napkin to drain. Drizzle one side of the bread with some olive oil. Spread the oil around with your finger to coat the bread. Toast in a toaster oven or grill on a grill pan until golden brown with some scorch marks on it. While the toast is still hot, lay the prosciutto on top of it in one layer. Top that with the egg and the shaved asparagus. Anoint all of it with the extra virgin olive oil and hit it with salt and pepper to taste, but be a little heavier-handed with the pepper than you normally would. Serve immediately.

Tip: Use a spoon to create a vortex in the water before you drop the egg in by swirling the spoon around the sauce pot. The vortex keeps the egg in the center of the pan while it sets instead of running all over the water and making a stringy mess.