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May 8, 2015

Bouillon with spring vegetables, mint

            The very smell of mint reanimates the spirits, and its flavour gives a remarkable zest to food.
~ Pliny the Elder, Natural History

Spring brings with it a kaleidoscope of flowers, young leaves in every shade of green and the first produce of the year – asparagus, peas and tender fresh herbs. It also often brings cold thunderstorms (occasionally featuring hail), and chilly, foggy evenings - in other words, perfect soup weather. Not a winter soup, laden with meat, robust legumes and earthy root vegetables. Rather, a spring soup, soothing yet light – a cashmere throw instead of a hefty eiderdown comforter.

This recipe was inspired by a recent meal at Le Comptoir, one of my favorite restaurants in Paris. The addition of mint brings an unexpected burst of flavor to the broth, a riff on a classic combination of mint and lamb. In fact, the soup features two quintessential mint pairings – mint & meat and mint & peas.

Bouillon with spring vegetables and mint
The recipe is very easy, although it does consist of several steps. Most of the components may (or, indeed, must) be prepared in advance; final assembly takes less than 10 minutes.
Serves 2
  • 2½ Cups home-made chicken stock (roasted or otherwise)
  • 6-7 stalks of asparagus
  • 3-4 scallions
  • ½-1 Cup green peas (frozen or fresh)
  • 5 fresh mint leaves
  • ½ Tablespoon (or less) neutral oil – rice bran, canola, grape-seed, light olive
  • Kosher salt
Clarify the stock
While not essential, this step makes for a more attractive presentation and an ethereal-tasting bouillon.
Freeze the stock in an ice-cube tray, muffin tin or a Ziplock bag placed flat in the freezer. Once frozen, place the stock cubes (if using a Ziploc bag, break into smaller pieces first) in a strainer lined with a coffee filter or a paper towel. Put on the counter (or in the refrigerator) to slowly thaw. The gentle melting process will result in a crystal clear stock, leaving behind the sediment which gives stock a cloudy appearance.
This bouillon would also work beautifully for floating some lovely ravioli.
N.B. Do not re-freeze previously frozen stock.

Prepare the peas
If using frozen peas, take out of the freezer, run under cool water and set in colander to thaw. If using fresh peas, shell the peas.

Roast the vegetables
Preheat the oven to 425°F/220°C (400°F/205°C for convection oven).
Wash the asparagus and scallions. Trim the roots and bright green tops from the scallions and peel off the first leaf (it is usually wilted and papery). Hold an asparagus spear near the ends and gently bend – the point at which the spear will be ready to snap is where the tender part of the stalk becomes tough. Peel the woodier root end without snapping off, or remove and save for making stock.

Place the scallions and asparagus on a baking sheet, gently coat in oil (a pastry brush simplifies the job), and sprinkle liberally with salt. Roast for 12-15 minutes, until the scallions are completely soft and caramelized.

Remove from the oven, cool slightly1 and cut into bite-sized pieces.

This roasted asparagus and scallions preparation can also be used in other dishes. It makes an excellent pizza topping, a tasty filling for a quiche (add the peas as well) or a simple vegetable side (leave whole).

Final assembly
Wash and dry the mint leaves, stack them neatly, fold in half laterally and cut into thin strips. Kitchen scissors work marvelously here, reducing the effort of the traditional chiffonade technique – rolling the stacked leaves into a tiny, minty cigar, and cutting with a knife. (A tiny cigar is not an easy thing to hold while wielding a sharp knife!)

Gently heat the bouillon in a small pot; add the peas and cook until tender, 2-3 minutes. Be sure to keep the bouillon at a very gentle simmer – do not let it boil.

Add the sliced asparagus and scallions, and allow to heat through, another minute or so. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Divide the soup between 2 bowls, sprinkle with the mint and serve.

I find this is the best way to store asparagus if I am not using it immediately after purchase – trim off ¼ inch (1cm) off the root end, stand in a tall container with an inch or so of cold water, cover with a plastic bag (secure with a rubber band) and refrigerate.

1 Or cool completely, wrap in foil or place in a covered container, and refrigerate for up to 24 hours in advance. Slice right before final assembly.

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