The Asparagus Season Arrives in the Asparagus Capital

Hadley, Massachusetts, next door to Amherst, where I live, proudly claims to be the Asparagus Capital of the U.S. In late May (a tad earlier this year) this little town has its moment of fame when the farmers bring their crops to the groceries and outdoor markets, and the locals grab bunches and head for their kitchens.
This annual asparagus harvest has been the inspiration for me to create many a new asparagus recipe such as this one for a creamy asparagus soup topped with quickly sautéed bay scallops and sprinkled with chives and golden breadcrumbs. This dish boasts lovely color contrasts with the snowy white shellfish nestled atop the verdant green puree. The textures too are counterpoints, for the smoothness of the pureed potage and the velvety scallops play off the crunch of the toasted breadcrumbs.

Like most soups, this one can be prepared ahead, so you will only need to sauté the scallops and garnish each serving at the last minute. Pair this delectable asparagus creation with a crisp watercress salad for lunch, or use it as an opener for a spring dinner. Oh, and if you live in the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts, make it with Hadley spears!
Asparagus Soup with Bay Scallops, Toasted Bread Crumbs, and Chives
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
3 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts only (about 2 large leeks)
2  pounds medium asparagus, tough ends broken off and discarded, and stalks cut into 1-inch          pieces
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
Kosher salt
1 cup crème fraiche
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 cup fresh coarse breadcrumbs made from French bread (see cooking tip)
3/4 to 1 pound bay scallops, patted dry or 10 to 12 sea scallops (with side muscles removed)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped chives
1. Heat 3 tablespoons butter in large, heavy deep-sided nonreactive pot set over medium heat. When butter is melted and hot, add leeks and sauté, stirring, until softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add  asparagus and stir and cook 1 minute more.
2. Add stock and 1teaspoon salt. Bring mixture to simmer,  lower heat, and cook at a simmer until vegetables are very tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and puree mixture in small batches in a food processor, blender, or food mill. Return to pot in which it was cooked. Or, use an immersion blender to puree the soup in the pot.
3. Whisk in crème fraiche, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper. Season with additional salt if needed. Place pot over very low heat to keep warm while finishing the soup. (Soup can be prepared 2 days ahead. Cool, cover, and refrigerate. Reheat, stirring, over medium heat.)
 4. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a medium, heavy skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the breadcrumbs and cook, stirring constantly, until they are crisp and a rich golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the skillet and place on a plate. (Breadcrumbs can be prepared 3 hours ahead.  Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature.)
 5. Remove the skillet from the heat and wipe clean with a paper towel. Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil and remaining 1 tablespoon butter to the skillet and set it over medium-high heat.  When butter and oil are hot, add scallops to skillet and cook until light golden brown and just cooked through, about 1 to 11/2 minutes per side, depending on their size which can vary. Season scallops with salt and pepper.
6. To serve, ladle soup into 6 shallow soup bowls. Divide scallops evenly atop soup in each bowl, and sprinkle each serving with breadcrumbs and chives. Serves 6.
Cooking tip: Use a good quality peasant loaf with crusts removed. Cut the bread into chunks and place them in a food processor. Pulse just until you have coarse crumbs.

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