Plotting, together

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.

Serves 4.


linda said...

it is always so comforting to read your posts jess…& this one was so "cozy & warm"…like "cuddle into."
i did not know the origin of your red table…oh, the foodie tales it holds!
&... asparagus soup coming up in my household…we are not weather related soup lovers (i am going to sub fat free cream...ok?).
one day i would like to explore seattle & of course experience delancey!

Luisa said...

such a lovely post. i could read it again and again. xo

kimberly said...

sweet girl,
i'm not sure where you are, but it sounds like it is far nicer there today. i am guessing that you think of these rainy days as romantic, and cozy, and filled with comfort food. but let me share - after months and months and months, we are so ready for summer. and sunshine!!!
that being said, it is pretty fabulous, and i can imagine how one would miss here, if they are there. and. you clearly have great taste in restaurants. love sitka and spruce.
come back soon~

Suzi Banks Baum said...

Really cream soup and letting yourself love and be loved, in Seattle or Cambridge-your happiness is applicable and real, just like soup. Love,s

anne said...

Oh i love this. So, so much. My husband and I are gearing up to return to Seattle as soon as we can! Thanks for sharing. Beautiful is the perfect word :)

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post! Dad must have recommended the Five Spot as well as supplying the camera -- we first dined there when he visited me on a shoot while I was preggers with Caleb....looking forward to seeing you all.

Stephanie said...

I have not found a cream of asparagus that I like, and that's odd since I like both cream and asparagus. Will report back to you my findings.

This made me want to move to Seattle. If you guys move back, I will move to Vancouver so we will still be a city away from one another. OK? OK.

megan said...

It. can't. be. that. long. ago. really?

love love love

Jess said...

Thanks, Linda. Actually, our red table isn't the table that I bought for my first apartment in Seattle. (That one now inhabits my little sister's apartment.) We bought our red table up on the North Shore of Boston near where we were married. About fat free cream: I didn't even know that such a thing exists! If it's fat free, doesn't that just make it skim milk? I imagine that you'll still get a lovely soup, though it won't be quite as rich. (But you already knew that, I'm sure.)

Thank you so much, Luisa.

Hi, Kimberly. I'm so glad that you left a note so that I could find your gorgeous photography. Wow! And you're right, I do love the Seattle rains. The winter darkness there did get to me sometimes, but those perfect Seattle summers more than made up for it. Say hello to Seattle for me. Oh, and please order one of everything at Sitka & Spruce for me, too.

It's true, Suzi. We're happy here and happy there. Now, if only I could figure out how to be in two places at once...

Hello, Anne. Thank you so much for your sweet note. Enjoy Seattle. There's so much to love about that place.

Amy, not only did Dad recommend the Five Spot, but I'm pretty sure he slipped me a twenty before that trip with instructions to spend it on breakfast there with Eli. See you so soon! Can't wait.

It's a plan, Steph. Though we're not doing very well at this one city apart thing so far, are we? Must fix that.

Megan - I KNOW.

A Day That is Dessert said...

I love every word of this, Jess. You are lovely. xo

Katie said...

Umm... this was a beautiful post (I used that word again). So lovely. Miss you...

Jess said...

This is such a lovely post. You have such a great way with words and tone. I was inspired to try your cream of asparagus soup. I didn't grow up with cream soups, either. Even though it's sweltering here in MA, this soup sounds more heartwarming than anything else.

Jess said...

Lecia, thank you. (The feeling is mutual, friend.)

Thanks so much, Katie. xo.

Hello, Jess. Thank you for your kind words. Yes, this is some weather we're having here all of the sudden, isn't it? When temperatures permit, I hope you'll enjoy this soup as much as I do.

Rogue Unicorn said...

Oh, Jess. I'm not crying I'm um, just having an allergy day. This is really such a beautiful, evocative and loving post. I really truly do believe that there are places that take up residence in our souls and that no matter how far away from them we are, or how long we've been away, coming back to them will always be coming home.
xo. T

molly said...

I spent many an hour at the Five Spot in 2001 and 2002 when my eldest was just a babe (my mom lives three doors down).

Now, I like to think that maybe, just maybe, you were an anonymous other in the always thronging crowds. How fun is that, life full circle?

So glad you had a chance to sink your teeth into Seattle, again.

We are so looking forward to our own two weeks, coming up, here.

Happy settling in, Jess.


Kasey said...

Oh, Jess, it was so lovely reading your post. It brought me back to Seattle (and reminded me that I must go back soon). One of my favorite things about blogging is sitting down and recalling very specific memories, elaborating on them, and seeing where the post takes me with them. I love your story of how dedicated you were to seeing Mt. Ranier from the airplane because Eli really wanted you to :) xx

Katherine said...

you're really a beautiful writer. you could be writing about IRS audits and i would still read with enthusiasm.

El said...

I've always wanted to visit Seattle and you've certainly made it more tempting. Glad you're both doing well and having fun.

Amanda @ Easy Peasy Organic said...

lovely. i love seattle, too ... if i could ever extract my Aussie husband from the sunshine, i know he'd love it. your photos speak of food in life - they're beautiful. they inspire dinners with friends. talking loudly in crowded cafes. and laughing.

thank you :)

D. @ Outside Oslo said...

Being from Seattle, I enjoyed reading your take on this beautiful (yes, it's worthy of that often-overused word!) city. Thanks for sharing a taste of your most recent trip here.

MEM said...

My 86 year old Mom who grew up on a farm here in South Jersey, was reminiscing about Asparagus soup. Her recipe calls for cooking the tough ends that you were going to throw away in the 5 cups of water to make an asparagus broth instead of using vegetable broth. Try it!

Jess said...

Good morning, all. I'm sorry to leave you hanging for so long. We've been traveling, but that's no excuse!

How'd you get so great, Rogue Unicorn? How?

I love that thought, Molly, that perhaps you were just a table or two away back then. I'm so happy that you'll get your own Seattle fix soon (perhaps you're already there?). You must miss it terribly. Can't wait to see photos and hear all about it.

Thanks, Kasey. I hope you'll get back there soon. What you say about the places memories take us when we sit down to write them -- exactly.

Katherine! That means so much to me. Thank you. I don't know the first thing about IRS audits, so that would be an entertaining read, indeed.

Oh, El, you've never been? You would love it.

Amanda, you'll just have to bring that husband of yours there in the summertime. It's light out until 10pm! Thank you for your kind words about my photographs. I appreciate it.

Thank you, D., for reading. By the way, the almond torte on your blog has my heart all aflutter this morning.

MEM, your mother is a genius. Everyone, did you hear that? Make an asparagus broth with the tough ends of your stalks! I can't wait to try it. Thanks for the tip!

The Fulton House Bed and Breakfast said...

You are only two hours from Portland, Oregon and you need to come stay. If you love Seattle you will really love Portland.

Your culinary mate!

Jess said...

I know, Wendy! We were so close. And I love Portland. Did you know that we honeymooned there? We're long overdue for a return visit...