Would you start your dinner with a cappuccino? If you are Italian, of course you won’t even finish your dinner with a cappuccino, let alone have it as an amuse-bouche.
However, this is what I did tonight. And I can’t advise you strongly enough to do the same, asap.
It all started with a restaurant.
I have already told you about my favourite restaurant here. When I lived in Wales my favourite restaurant was exactly the opposite type: posh food, made only with local, seasonal ingredients, run by local people, in a stunning location. The restaurant was renown to be among the ‘fine dining’ ones in the area, thus we waited quite a while before trying it: posh places ended up all too often in the same ol’ barely edible food and a double price tag.
When we did go there eventually, we were truly sorry for not having eaten there before. We were truly sorry for having previously wasted our money in other restaurants, posh or not. The dining room had just a few tables and was set in a stone cottage, immersed in an ”area of outstanding natural beauty”, in front of the ocean. Part of the charms was due to the cozy, homely atmosphere given by the huge stone fireplace in that tiny, dark room. We knew the food was different the moment we were served home-made bread of two types, both really good: finding good bread in Wales was harder than finding the Holy Grail. The menu was seasonal, local, well thought after, and cooked with skill . You see, eating out in Wales was an adrenaline sport: we tried a new place not much with the expectation of getting good food, but more with the hope of avoiding food poisoning. On the other hand, I have cooked some of my most amazing meals there: local produce was nothing short of stunning.
Anyway, the guy in the kitchen knew what he was doing with his salt marshes lambs and Welsh lobsters; he also knew how much cream and butter you need to make a truly delicious celeriac puree or how thick you need to cut chips for them to be addictive. He made the best soups ever, rich with slow cooked vegetables and cream; he always offered a little amuse bouche while you waited for the dinner.
And here we come to our cappuccino, my friends. One day he served us little cappuccino cups, filled with truffle-scented foam, and under the foam a thick, dense, fat asparagus soup. Now, what about that for dinner?
This is my own version. Unfortunately I did not have any truffle oil, but I though I’d pair asparagus with cinnamon. I know it sounds odd but trust me – it just works, for some weird reason. I discovered it years ago here and since then I’ve always gone back to this pairing. I used almonds and almond butter to give body and richness to the soup, and I unleashed all of my inner mad scientist to make the foam. My kitchen equipment is minimal, and basically reduces to a hand blender. But the sky is the limit to what a hand blender can achieve. I looked into making an “air”. It is a whipped liquid thickened with some stabilizer, as explained here (in Italian). I set on agar agar as a stabilizer because I had it at home. If you have one of the little whippers to make cappuccino, or maybe even an espresso machine, you may not even need the agar agar.
I am not a fan of molecular gastronomy and the likes – or better, I am, but I don’t think it is something that makes sense to replicate at home, or to replicate all the times. But this cappuccino has something that brings it from the realm of curiosity to the realms of : ‘Wow, that’s funny! No wait, wow, that’s delicious! No wait, can I have another one?’. The milk foam brings smells, and enhances the flavour of the soup. Besides, surely enough, it was darn fun to make. And the asparagus soup was one of the best I’ve ever made; for this reason I’m sharing the recipe with No Croutons Required, the event created by Jaqueline of Tinned Tomatoes, and Lisa. The theme for this month’s edition is indeed asparagus, and the edition is hosted by the always inspiring Lisa of Lisa’s vegetarian kitchen.
Asparagus cappuccino with cinnamon air
Serves 4 as a starter
Note: don’t use very big cappuccino cups, since the soup is quite intense. You may want to have a lot of it, but it will be more of a main than a starter.
For the Foam:
200 ml skimmed milk
200 ml stock (I used some chickpeas cooking broth I had at hand)
1/4 teaspoon agar agar powder
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon cinnamon + a little extra for dusting (optional)
For the asparagus and almond soup:
1 pound white asparagus (I used broken ones from my farmer’s market)
1 small potato
salt, black pepper
50 gr almonds, skinned and toasted
1 tablespoon almond butter or cream
1 teaspoon clarified butter (or use olive oil)
about 750 ml of stock ( I used chickpeas cooking broth again)
First, warm the milk and stock in a very high and big pot until nearly boiling. Add the cinnamon and let it cool slightly while you prepare the soup.
Peel the asparagus ends. Cut into small (1/2 cm) pieces, reserving some of the tips. Peel and cut into 1/2 cm dice the potato. In a high pot heat the clarified butter, then add potato dice and asparagus. Heat it gently, stirring, for about 4-5 minutes, it should not colour at all. Cover with stock, bring to the boil and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile toast the almonds and roughly chop them. Prepare the cappuccino cups, plus a strainer and a bowl. Take the cinnamon stick off the milk mixture and add in the agar agar; bring again to the boil and let it cook stirring for a minute or two. Take care, the milk will try to rise and go out of the pot.Take off the heat and let cool slightly.
When the soup is cooked, add in the chopped almonds and the almond butter. Stir well, take off the heat and blend until very smooth using a hand blender or a food processor. Pass through the sieve to get rid of any hard bits. I usually skip this for sauces and soups, but here it is necessary because the soup should be very smooth. Taste it and make sure it has plenty of seasoning; if needed add a bit more salt and some almond butter for richness. Ladle the strained liquid into cappuccino cups until almost to the rim.
Bring the milk mixture back on medium heat. Keep a hand blender half immersed in the liquid and whizz. A lot of foam because of the whizzing and the heat will form. Go ahead for a minute or two then spoon some of the foam on top of the cappuccino cups. Whizz some more if you need more foam, until all the cups are covered with a generous layer of foam. Add a bit more that what looks right – it will sit while you serve it. Serve right away. If you like cinnamon a lot, lightly dust with cinnamon the cups. Serve with some blanched asparagus tips on the side; little savoury biscuits will be a good alternative.