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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Happy Easter Dinner: Asparagus Soufflé

One challenge of a mixed marriage is how to celebrate Easter. No, we aren't talking about religion, but about what to do when one person is a meat eater and the other a vegetarian. Holidays demand menus that are a little more festive. And, although Tim is a perpetually good sport about the fake-meat amalgams that Ruth foists upon him, a ham-shaped wad of tofu definitely wouldn't cut it for Easter.

Surrounded by the cherry blossoms and sudden heat of a Northern Virginia spring, we wanted an Easter dinner that would, in the parlance of the cooking magazines, celebrate the season. And what better than asparagus? And what better than an asparagus soufflé—vegetarian enough for Ruth, festive enough for Tim?

We adapted a recipe that used little ramekins, partly because we didn't have enough eight-ounce ramekins, partly because we like the thrill of seeing the big puffy soufflé come out of the oven (and the related uncertainty about whether it will rise). We also switched out the spices, unsure whether we'd like the author's cumin and nutmeg.

Partway into the preparation, we realized that we'd left our soufflé dish in Connecticut, so we substituted a casserole. It ended up being a little too big for the recipe, so although the soufflé came out fluffy and delicious, it did not majestically rise above the dish as we had hoped.
We served the soufflé with a quick tomato jam: grape tomatoes squashed in olive oil and herbs de provence and cooked down until their juices thickened. The acid bite of the tomatoes worked well with the rich soufflé.

Asparagus Soufflé

1 pound asparagus spears, trimmed and cut into inch-long pieces
1/3 cup chopped onion
1 fat clove garlic
1/2 t. dried thyme
1/4 cup. unsalted butter
3 T. flour
1 1/4 c. whole milk
1/2 t. dry mustard, or more to taste
pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper
1/2 c. Gruyère cheese (or Swiss if you can't find Gruyére)
3 egg yolks, beaten
5 egg whites
pinch of cream of tartar

1. Remove the top rack from your oven and preheat it to 375 degrees. Butter a soufflé dish or smallish casserole and set aside.

2. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, and drop in asparagus pieces for two minutes. Rinse the asparagus in cold water and set aside.

3. Melt one tablespoon of butter in a small skillet over medium heat, then add onions, garlic and thyme. Cook until soft, about five minutes.

4. Purée asparagus pieces and cooked onions and garlic in a food processor.

5. In a medium-size saucepan, melt the remaining three tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat, then whisk in the flour. Let the mixture cook for a few minutes, but don't let it get brown.

6. Add the milk, whisking all the while, and simmer until thickened. Add the dry mustard, nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste. Add the cheese, and stir until it's melted.

7. In a mixing bowl, combined the cheese sauce and the puréed asparagus and onions. Add the egg yolks.

8. Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until fairly stiff, but be careful not to let them get dry and lumpy.

9. Mix a half-cup of the beaten egg whites into the asparagus mixture to lighten it. Then, very carefully, add the rest of the egg whites to the asparagus mixture—don't beat them in, but gently fold them. It's OK if they aren't completely incorporated. You want to preserve the fluffiness of the beaten whites, as they will make your soufflé rise.

10. Just as carefully, transfer the entire mixture to your soufflé dish or casserole. Don't just plop it in; use a big spoon to gently move the mixture from the bowl to your dish.

11. Place in the center of the oven, set the timer for 40 minutes, and resist the urge to open the oven door to peek at the rising soufflé. If you have an oven window that's clean enough to look through, use that to monitor the situation. If you don't, wait until the timer rings before investigating.

12. If, after 40 minutes, the soufflé looks set, with a brown crusty top, remove it, whisk it to the table, and eat it immeditely. If it doesn't look quite set, give it a few more minutes, but DO NOT stab it with a knife to test the doneness—it will fall.

Despite all these steps, and a little bit of finickiness in mid-prepration, this really isn't a hard dish to make, and the resulting oohs and ahhs, at both the presentation and the taste, will make all the fussing worth it.

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