Archive for May, 2007

Asparagus Soup – and a Peony Revealed

The asparagus soup is below. But first, a word from our peony. Having extolled the early one while whining that it is very magenta and then showing nothing but a bud with an illustrative ant , it seems only fair to display a flower. Bill took this picture at my request, both because I was in Maine at the time and because he is a better photographer.

Bill Bakaitis

The ( neglected ) asparagus part.

It never fails. You read a recipe for asparagus and no matter what kind of recipe it is: steamed, grilled, stir-fried, whatever, you will be instructed to break off the tough ends and ” save them for soup.”

End of story. Nobody ever tells you how to make this kind of asparagus soup. And you know if you’ve ever tried it that soups that are not asparagus soup are not improved by having a few asparagus ends thrown in.

So. The following recipe is made – primarily – from tough asparagus ends. It’s easy, inexpensive and delicious hot or cold. Because asparagus ends are tough and stringy even after they’ve been cooked to death, you do have to use a food mill to get a velvety puree, but that’s the price of frugality. If you want to just throw it into a processor, you have to use tender asparagus (see note at end of the post).

Cream of Asparagus Soup

1 ½ pounds of asparagus ( roughly 2 bunches) is usually enough to make 4 servings of soup and 4 servings of asparagus-as-veg. , but the recipe works with whatever quantity you’ve got.


sweet onion such as Vidalia

basmati or other flavorful white rice

heavy cream, preferably not ultra pasteurized although at this point that’s wishful thinking in a lot of places

1. Break the asparagus spears where they break naturally and set the tough ends aside. Divide the tender ends into 2 piles, one a little more than twice as big as the other. Refrigerate the larger pile until you want it for vegetable purposes. Chop the smaller pile into 1 inch chunks and set aside.

2. Trim off and discard any really hard white ends of the tough ends. Chop the remainder into ½ inch chunks and measure into a large saucepan.

3. Add 1/2 cup coarsely chopped onion, 1 ½ tablespoons rice, and 2 cups water per cup of ends.

4. Cover and cook over low heat until the vegetables are soft and the rice is fully cooked, about 40 minutes. Add the chopped tender asparagus, recover the pan and cook until vegetables are very soft and the rice is a fluffy mush, about 20 minutes more.

5. Put the whole works through a food mill into a clean saucepan ( for hot soup) or a heatproof bowl (for cold). Stir in 1/3 cup cream for each cup of asparagus ends. Reheat the hot. Chill the cold. Taste. Add salt as needed. That’s it.

Bill Bakaitis

Who wants to look at a picture of a bowl of cream soup? Suffice it to say it’s celadon with darker speckles and always reminds me of this lovely image from Elizabeth David:
” … soups delicately coloured like summer dresses, coral, ivory, or pale green…”
(French Provincial Cooking, British Penguin edition 1973)

Curling of the sort in the picture is caused by damage to the spear as it was emerging from the ground. Usually , a cutworm tried and failed to sever it but sometimes you nicked it with your knife while harvesting an adjacent spear.

To make the soup using a processor or blender: Follow the proportions in the recipe, using tender asparagus uppers instead of ends. The only thing that changes is timing: Cook the onions and rice in the water for 20 minutes or so before adding the first batch of chopped asparagus. After that, it’s exactly the same except a processor is marginally easier to wash than a food mill and takes less manual effort to employ.

Tips on Choosing, Storing, Preparing and Growing Asparagus are here.

Autumn Olive in Spring

Our old house came with a yard full – and I do mean full – of old fashioned plants, things like yews and lilacs and peonies, a big magnolia and a truly hideous orange azalea that has long since gone to its just reward.

Among the plants we class as riches is a tree-sized autumn olive, Elaeagnous umbellata. It may have been planted when they were still on the OK list. Or, in the manner of autumn olives it may have arrived naturally, delivered by a passing bird.

In any event it’s here now, a late spring star whose clouds of starry white flowers perfume the entire lower yard. Beneath it, looking like fallen petals, is a carpet of tender white violets. Pick a bouquet of both and you see the olive blossoms are in fact pale cream.


Both plants are invasive weeds, though only the olive seems to excite strong passions among preservationists. ( Plenty of people hate violets in the lawn. Another whole story.)

Because it is now tree-size, we thought for years it was a Russian olive, E. angustifolia. This made us feel slightly less guilty: the Russian kind seems marginally less inclined to cover the earth.

But only slightly, both olives are on the don’t plant this list and any day now we will cut ours down. Right after we fertilize the poison ivy, an unimpeachably native vine of which we have a great deal more than either Elaeagnous.

In the meantime, we’ll remember that these “olives” feed many wild creatures including but by no means limited to: Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Cedar Waxwing, Northern Mockingbird, Cardinal, Wood Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler, assorted sparrows, Black Bear, opossum and skunk).

Of course they also feed fellow-invasives like starlings. And deer are fond of them. These things are never simple.


These are the flowers that convinced me it was E. umbellata, after I read about the difference here.

lilac Time(ing)

As lilac lovers go, I’m a very small timer: there are 8 of them in the New York yard; 10 in Maine, a mere token compared to big public collections like Highland Park, in Rochester NY, where 500 different lilacs – 1200 plants – are blooming right this minute.

But even our tiny assortment gives us a full six weeks of fragrant delight because it includes a few season stretchers: bushy, pale purple ‘Miss Kim’ (Syringa patula), pink-flowered ‘James Macfarlane’ (S. x prestoniae) and a 20 foot tall pair of Japanese tree lilacs (S. reticulata), all of which bloom later than the old fashioned French kind (S. vulgaris).


I wish I could tell you. I bought it at a clearance sale at an Agway now long gone and it was supposed to be a plain old single flowered purple lilac, the sort used for hedging in an ampler age.

Hence this bit of lilac advice: keep the sales slip until you see flowers. Mislabeling is fairly common and it’s vexing – take it from my experience – to get a dark purple-red that looks like ‘Charles Joly’ when you thought you bought a white ‘Miss Willmott’.

One way to know what you’re getting is to join up with the National Phenology Network and request one of their lilac clones. Follow the” submit data” links and you’ll be sent to the application form.

The lilac will be a ‘Red Rothomagensis’ (S. x chinensis) a somewhat gangly, fragrant early bloomer with reddish buds that open to dark pink flowers. There is a picture of one here.

And why is the National Phenology Network sending you this present? Because they want your help. Phenology is the art/science of measuring climate with biological events like frog song, fish migration and plant bloom; and lilacs were chosen, way back in the 1950’s, to be standard measuring instruments. Gardeners all over the country have been watching lilacs, sending in data and, as citizen scientists, helping to document the process of climate change. (In the Midwest, where the Network was born, spring – as measured by lilac – is now almost a week earlier than it was 50 years ago).


For now, we’re watching this common lilac, which is already in place in Maine. As long as you monitor the same plant, year after year, you can contribute useful data by watching any lilac you choose. But we will ask for a ‘Red Rothomagensis’ and start watching that one too, because that’s even better. By eliminating the variations of species, cultivar and individual plant, clones make it easier to measure accurately.

For more on this communal effort, read the short history of the project that was broadcast on National Public Radio or go directly to Project Budburst, where there are full instructions and a long list of alternate watch plants. If lilacs aren’t your thing – and for some reason you’re still reading – the list includes ocotillo, redbud, wild strawberry and many other common plants.

One warning about the clone: Can’t say for sure about RR, but most Chinese lilacs are very mildew prone, and although the fungus does no long-term harm it isn’t very attractive. Try to plant your contribution to science in an inconspicuous place.

PS: Losing your local Agway isn’t phenological, but it’s just as reliable as a measure of change. Our county in Maine ( Knox) has fewer and fewer farms and truck gardens, more and more suburban sprawl.

Peonies and Their Ants

And their sisters and their cousins whom they reckon up by dozens… no, no, just joking, but there are all kinds of nifty peonies.

And all of them have ants. Long ago, some observant gardener noticed that ants on peony buds always meant the flowers would open soon. Always. And so a bit of folk wisdom was born: Peonies cannot open until ants eat away the seal that keeps the buds closed.

I grew up believing this, my mother went to her grave believing it, and just the other day I heard it repeated again. But it isn’t true. The thing the ants are eating is nectar, not glue, and what this does for the peony is make sure there are plenty of ants around to eat any soft-bodied insects that might like to eat peonies.


This bud belongs to a super-early short peony that opens almost a month before the common (lactiflora) kind. It was here when we got the house and all we know about it is that it’s tough. The double flowers last a long time, too, a mixed blessing given that they are – to put it kindly – magenta.


When these fern leaf peony buds open the flowers will be single, in a clear true red. They’ll last about 35 seconds. And that nifty foliage will disappear by midsummer. Catalogs that describe fern leafs ( P. tenuifolia ) as rare and special seldom mention these attributes, but it’s something to bear in mind before plunking down large dollars. Oh, also they take several years to settle in and start blooming well. On the good side, they’re indestructible, even in acid soil that gets only a few hours of sun. And once you have them, you have them. Even small bits of root make new plants.


Ok, ok, here’s a picture of an actual peony, probably Queen Victoria, one of the antique varieties that came with the place.

Peony Tips Worth Repeating:

*They do need sun, but not that much; with most varieties you can get decent flowers from a half day’s worth and the farther south you are, the more the peonies can use a break from broiling afternoons.

* Be sure to plant shallowly – those fat growth buds should be no more than an inch and a half below ground. The number one cause of bloom failure is over-deep planting… or, over time, the gradual movement of compost and mulch that buries those buds as effectively as if you had done it yourself.

* They don’t like acid soil; if rhododendrons are doing great, better you add some lime to the peony bed before you start planting.

* Fall is the best time to plant. Potted peonies can go in the ground now, but the bare root kind – the kind with all the dazzling choices – must be planted in fall.

* No peony parts in the compost! The Botrytis blight that plagues them – their own personal fungus: Botrytis paeoniae – is ever present, even on apparently healthy growth, so everything that leaves the peony bed should stay gone: discarded bouquets , the fall cleanup pile, Everything. Burn it if you can, toss it deep into the woods where no peonies will ever grow, or be deeply retrogressive and send it to the landfill.

* Peonies last a long time as cut flowers and can be held in bud stage for a month or more – if you have the room in the refrigerator. For an exhaustive and very useful treatment of cut-flower choices and procedures, download Fresh Cut Peonies, from Kansas State University.