Earlier this month, Eli and I shook the sawdust from our hair, packed our bags, and flew west, destination: Seattle. Eli’s back there for work every few months, but this visit was my first time joining him in two years. Two years. I don’t how I stayed away that long.
I’m telling you, friends: Seattle has some kind of hold over me. Over both of us. That this city is all wrapped up in our story – or perhaps our story is all wrapped up in it – has something to do with it, I’m sure. Eli moved to Seattle for a job right out of college, just a few weeks after we realized in an instant that we wanted to do our lives together, and half toppled, half sailed from the solid ground of our friendship into something new. My post-graduation plan was to study abroad for a year (turned out to be two), and before I left, I flew out to Seattle for a visit. I remember Eli insisting that I get myself a window seat on the left side of the airplane so that I could see Mount Rainier when we flew by. This was very, very important to him. I promised that I would, and once we crossed the Mississippi, I barely peeled my eyes from the window. I was afraid I’d miss it. “How will I know when I see it?” I had asked. “You’ll just know,” he assured me. He was right. I saw it, and I knew. It was beautiful. Too beautiful to be real, and too beautiful not to be, at once terrifying and reassuring in its hugeness, all mine and the whole world’s.
Those were two heady weeks. Eli made his mom’s tuna casserole for dinner on my first night there and we mapped out our visit over steaming bowls. We wandered from Eli’s apartment in Capitol Hill down to Pike Place Market and ate Beecher’s grilled cheese sandwiches by the sound. We climbed to the top of the water tower in Volunteer Park, then snacked on chocolate covered cherries in the grass. One chilly morning, we drove to Queen Anne for breakfast at the Five Spot. My dad had given me a fully manual film camera for graduation, and I shot my first rolls, timid and terrible, on that trip.
Towards the end of my stay, we hiked up along the White Chuck River and spent a few days camping near Glacier Peak. I awoke in our tent on the first morning to find Eli looking at me. “I’m thinking about the ring that I want to make for you,” he said, “and it’s beautiful.” I just noticed that I’ve used the word “beautiful” three times in as many paragraphs, but it’s the truth: It was beautiful. All of it. (Plus, this last “beautiful” was Eli talking, not me, so I get that one for free.)
I was so glad for that visit. This way, I could picture Eli in his space, doing his Eli things, when I was scratching off phone cards half a world away. When I thought of Eli, I thought of Seattle, and vice versa. And when, in 2004, I bought a one-way ticket back to the U.S. of A., it was not only Eli, but Seattle that welcomed me home.
I’ve often felt as though Seattle were in on some kind of secret back then, a secret about who we were, who we would become, and this life that would be ours. Seattle is the city where Eli learned how to climb mountains, how to build big, beautiful (!) things out of wood, and where I ran my first 5K. It’s where we started plotting, together, the rest of our lives. It’s also where I lived, for the first time ever, in an apartment all my own, where I first really started to bake and to cook. There in my green- and yellow-tiled kitchen, I began to think about food in ways that surprised me, excited me, made me feel more like me.
I loved living alone. That’s what I had planned on telling you about when I sat down to write this morning. I thought I’d write about that apartment, the kitchen table that I bought for twenty-five dollars from a woman whose husband had made it in college, and the first meals that I hosted there; about the ends of those meals, when everyone would leave, and I’d be there with the crumpled napkins and the spoon-scraped plates feeling so full; about the man who would sometimes sleep on the stoop of my building, and how it made me feel sad and sorry to see him, a little bit afraid, too, and annoyed with myself that I was afraid. But then I started telling you about other things, and since by now you’re probably hungry (I am!), I’ll wrap it up. Suffice it to say that I discovered something important that year in that apartment, namely, that from inside of me, and me alone, I could spin this thing called home.
I also discovered cream of asparagus soup. I didn’t grow up with “cream of” soups. I knew they existed, of course, but we were more a chicken or vegetable soup family. Cream of soups seemed somehow out of reach. They felt luxurious – a little too luxurious. Not the kind of thing that regular old people should be making in their regular old homes. What I didn’t know then is that cream of soups are among the simplest, most straightforward soups out there. Typically, all you need is a couple of pounds of a single vegetable, an onion and some fat to cook it in, stock, and a pour of heavy cream. The recipe for a pot of most other soups could swallow that ingredient list whole. This probably isn’t news to any of you, but it was to twenty-four year old me, the me who had never puréed a soup before and had to borrow Eli’s blender for the task. I remember puréeing that first batch, late on a Thursday night, for a dinner that I was hosting the following evening. I was so pleased with the result and, frankly, with myself for making it, that when I finally climbed into bed, I couldn’t sleep. My early twenties were obviously full of excitement.
Today is an odd day to be writing about soup, sitting as I am with my hair pulled up, the window pushed open, and the fan spinning overhead. But if recent weather patterns are any indication – from 50 degrees to 85 in a single week’s time – soup weather may once again be upon us without so much as a moment’s notice. I am nothing if not prepared.
I’m now seven springs out from the first time I made this cream of asparagus soup and, while I’m no longer losing sleep over it, I’m still convinced that it’s special. Seven springs worth of dinner guests seem to think so, too. Even before they tell me so, I know by the way they fall silent after the first bite and slow down. It’s that kind of soup. I hope you’ll try it.
p.s. – The photos that you see here (except for the old Five Spot shot and the ones of the soup on my red table) are from our recent trip to Seattle. You’re looking at two restaurants, Delancey and Sitka & Spruce. Both should be at the very top of your list the next time you’re in Seattle.
Cream of Asparagus Soup
Adapted from Gourmet, March 2001
Fresh-squeezed lemon juice adds a nice bright spot to this soup. The original recipe calls for just ¼ teaspoon for the entire pot, but I like to add more than that – a teaspoon, at least. Another option is to go with the minimal amount, and then serve the soup with individual lemon wedges so that people can up the citrus factor if they wish. If you’re going to make this soup ahead, which I recommend, add the last tablespoon of butter and the lemon juice after reheating, just before serving. I have had success making this soup dairy-free, using olive oil in place of the butter and soy milk in place of the cream. Without the butter and the cream it’s a different animal, but there’s still something to it. Something good.
2 pounds asparagus stalks, their tough bottoms snapped or sliced off
1 large yellow onion
3 Tbsps. unsalted butter
5-6 cups vegetable broth
½ cup heavy cream
Fresh lemon juice, to taste (see note, above)
Sea salt and black pepper
Coarsely chop the onion.
Cut the tips from 8 asparagus stalks and reserve for garnish. (If that feels too fussy, you’re welcome to skip the garnish.) Cut the stalks and all of the remaining asparagus into ½-inch pieces.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a heavy pot over medium-low heat until it just begins to foam. Add the asparagus pieces, a few grinds of sea salt and black pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add the 5 cups of vegetable broth and simmer, covered, until the asparagus is very tender, 15 to 20 minutes.
While the soup simmers, briefly steam or boil the reserved asparagus tips. If you like them firm, like I do, cook for only about 2 minutes, tops. Drain and set aside.
Purée the soup in batches in a stand blender, or use an immersion blender to purée it in the pot. If you go the stand blender route, you might want to wait for the soup to cool slightly. Be very careful when blending hot liquids; fill the blender only one half to three quarters of the way full with each batch. Return the puréed soup to the pot, stir in the cream, then add more broth, if necessary, to thin the soup. Taste, and season with salt and pepper. Bring the soup to a boil and whisk in the remaining tablespoon of butter. (I admit, sometimes I’m a butter wimp and I leave out this final tablespoon. The soup is plenty rich without it.)
Add the lemon juice just before serving and garnish each bowl with two asparagus tips.