I have a lot of time for Tom Colicchio. He’s sharp-witted, his politics align with mine, and those blue eyes… Oh: and he cooks! This is a showstopper of a spring first course from his book, Think Like a Chef.
The book uses a clever pedagogical device: starting with a combination of ingredients that get along well on the palate, Tom shows how to use them as the basis for several very different dishes. The soup we’re making today features a seasonal combo of asparagus, morel mushrooms and ramps. Apart from the soup, Tom uses these ingredients to make a ragout, a free-form raviolo, a buttery sauce and cooking medium for sole fillets, and an accompaniment to roasted baby chicken.
Our velvety asparagus and ramp soup forms a green lake surrounding an island of delicate morel custard. Here’s how it’s made. Note that the objective here is to have the soup prepared and hot a minute or two after the custards come out of the oven. You can make the soup a bit ahead of time and keep it warm in a thermos, but the custard needs to be made à la minute. I suggest heating your soup bowls in a 160’F oven, if possible, for a few minutes before service.
Asparagus Soup With Morel Custard – Serves 8
For the custard:
- 2 Tbsp neutral oil
- 1/4 lb. fresh morels, cleaned, trimmed and coarsely chopped (I reserved three whole tiny, perfect specimens to crown each custard)
- 2 ramps, white parts only, cleaned and minced
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 egg yolk
Heat the oven to 325′ and butter eight 2-ounce ramekins. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the morels, minced ramps, and salt and pepper, and cook until the morels begin to soften and release their juices, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the cream, bring it to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and steep for about 10 minutes.
Strain the cream into a medium bowl; reserve the morels and ramps. Allow the cream to cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Beat the egg yolks and egg together, then add to the cream. Mix the custard well, then add a pinch of salt and the reserved morels and ramps.
Divide the custard between the ramekins. Place the ramekins in a large baking dish. Put the baking dish on the middle rack of the oven and add enough boiling water to come about halfway up the ramekins. Cover the baking dish with tin foil and cook until the custard is set, 20 to 25 minutes.
- The custard recipe doesn’t scale down well due to the small amount of egg yolk. If you’re not serving 8 people, just cook part of the custard and enjoy the rest the next day as a cook’s treat.
- I tried making the custard once with dried porcini mushrooms, and it didn’t work: it was too intense and murky. The morels have a more delicate flavour that gently perfumes the custard mix but stays mostly contained in the chopped pieces of mushroom. If you don’t have fresh morels, you could try using dried ones, but you’ll lose much of the aroma and flavour. For all that is good and holy, don’t use truffle oil in this recipe. That shit’s like a neutron bomb, annihilating everything around it.
- In order to set properly, the custard mixture has to be at room temperature or warmer when it goes into the oven.
- If you have a steam or combi oven, you can dispense with the bain marie and steam the custards at 200’F for 20 minutes.
- If you’re reserving some whole morels for garnish, cook them just before the custards come out of the oven. Heat a Tbsp of butter in a small sauté pan over medium-high heat, and sauté the morels, with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper, for about 3 minutes. Set them aside in the pan.
For the soup:
- 2-1/2 lbs. asparagus. Don’t worry about removing or peeling the tough lower stalk.
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil
- 2-1/4 cups unsalted, light coloured chicken stock (homemade or fancy store-bought)
- 2 shallots, peeled and minced
- 1 small leek, white part only, finely chopped
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 lb. ramps, white parts only cleaned, trimmed and chopped
- 1/4 C heavy cream
- 3 tablespoons mixed fresh herbs (such as chervil, chives, tarragon, and basil)
Cut the asparagus spears in half. Chop the tips into 1/4-inch pieces and reserve, then chop the stems likewise. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat until it moves easily across the pan. Add the stems and cook, stirring occasionally, until they start to soften, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the stock and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat and gently simmer until the stock tastes like asparagus, about 15 minutes. Strain the infused stock and discard the cooked stems.
Heat the remaining tablespoonful of oil in the saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots, leeks, salt, and pepper and cook (without browning), stirring frequently, for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the asparagus tips and the ramps to the saucepan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the asparagus tips begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Add the infused stock and simmer until the asparagus is soft but still bright green, about 5 minutes more.
Puree the soup, then press it through a fine strainer. Return the strained soup to the blender and blend until frothy (a handheld blender will also work).
Run a sharp knife around the outer edge of each custard. Invert the ramekin quickly onto the centre of a warm soup bowl, tap it a few times, and hope for the best. To be candid: some of my custards released perfectly, and some came out in pieces and needed to be coaxed into a timbale shape on the plate. All the more reason to have reserved a few mushrooms to sit atop the custard!
Top the custard with the reserved mushrooms and a sprinkling of chopped herbs (I used chives from the garden.) I chose to present the bowl with the custard sitting alone, and the piping hot soup in a small pitcher. This lets you keep the soup hot, and removes the complication of soup sloshing around the pristine bowl on its way to the table.
The verdict? Delicious. David, not an asparagus aficionado, said it was one of his favourite soups ever. Velvety, verdant and light on the palate. The custards were silky and rich, and the morels gave them an earthy but luxurious flavour.
That said, the recipe is deceptively tricky. It calls for good timing and careful attention to detail (e.g., not browning the leeks and shallots, preparing the custard ramekins, gently cooking and decanting the custard). The treatment of the asparagus is also counterintuitive: when I’ve made asparagus soup before, I’ve snapped off the tough ends, whizzed the stalks into the soup, and garnished it with the tips. None of that applies here. So I’m glad I gave the recipe a spin with just the two of us before cooking it for a bigger group. But mostly, I’m just glad I made it!