I haven't given up on my Soup of the Week. I'm just way behind in my postings. But I'm going to jump ahead and share this recipe since asparagus season is fleeting. It is from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. This book is a few years old but it won a few awards when it first came out and the Cooks Talk people regard it highly. That's a pretty critical crowd. Judy Rodgers is the author and chef of the esteemed Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. Her food is very pure and based on quality of ingredients. Call it "artisinal" since that is the new buzz word. I actually don't own the book but it is on my wish list. As I've run across them on the internet I've saved a few recipes that people have shared. And that's how I came to test this one. It is Asparagus and Rice Soup with Pancetta and Black Pepper Soup.
The soup is made by sweating a heap of onions until they're really soft and sweet and then adding broth. Then a bit of rice is cooked in the soup until tender. On the side, thin sliced asparagus is sauteed with pancetta and, once cooked, added to the broth as well. It all comes together really nicely. Nicer than my picture shows - that's for sure. I used canned chicken broth and with all the added sweet onions, you would never have known. I know it would be really fantastic with a good homemade chicken broth. I greatly enjoyed this soup and will make it again. Hopefully once more before the asparagus is gone.
6 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, warm four tablespoons of the olive oil. Add onions and a pinch of salt and cook slowly, stirring regularly. Don't let onions color; they should sweat their moisture and then become tender and translucent in about 10 minutes. Add rice, chicken stock and water and bring to a simmer. Cover tightly and cook until rice is nut-tender, probably 15 to 20 minutes, depending upon rice you choose. Broth will be cloudy and should taste sweet from onions. Turn off heat.
While rice is cooking, sliver asparagus, slicing it at an angle and about 1/8 inch thick. Don't worry if slivers vary a little in thickness; irregularity will guarantee uneven cooking and a pleasantly varied texture. You should get about two cups.
In a 12-inch skillet over medium heat, warm remaining two tablespoons of olive oil. Add pancetta and asparagus and stir once to coat, then spread them out and leave to sizzle until those at the edge of pan begin to color. Toss or stir once, then leave to color again. Repeat a few times until mass has softened and shrunk by about a third.
Book excerpt: "This simple soup is crowded with flavors and textures. The ingredients are dosed to strike a high-pitched balance between the sweet onion and asparagus and the pungent pancetta and pepper; the mild, tender rice mediates. Choose any size spears with neat, tight tips and bright, firm stocks. I use carnaroli or arborio rice for this soup; you can use any type of white rice you like and gauge the cooking time accordingly."
Notes from my kitchen: You can definitely cut back on the olive oil here. I did my onions in 3T of olive oil and I still think that was too much. You can see in the picture the soup is shimmering from all that oil. I'll cut back even more next time. Also, while the recipe only calls for 1/4 c of rice, it is plenty in the finished soup. Resist any temptation to add more. I used regular long grain white rice with good results. Black pepper plays an important role here, don't be shy.