Considering the length of most recipes in Judy Roger's Zuni Cafe Cookbook, the eponymous cookbook of her San Francisco restaurant, finding a quick dinner recipe is something of a feat. Every page of her book is awash with meticulous detail about the cooking process, from advice about the shape of diced onion pieces to the flavor a fish stock ought to have when it's just finished (minutes too long on the stove and it can go muddy). Her roast chicken recipe, for example, runs four pages. Yet despite the laborious descriptions of technique (or perhaps because of it), everything I've made from that book has been outstanding: a monkfish stew, that roast chicken, and now, this soup. As she mentions in the recipe's introduction, it's a soup of delightful flavors and unexpected textures.
With its limited number of ingredients, it also depends on them being of highest quality (homemade chicken stock makes a big difference). Good thing asparagus are really coming into season; the rest of the ingredients are good year-round. The soup begins with gently sweated onions, which add a sweet flavor to the broth, and finishes with asparagus and pancetta that have been caramelized together in a skillet. Rice adds bulk and nuttiness and the pepper keeps it sharp on the palate. It's not exactly a light spring soup, but it's satisfying nonetheless.
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cups diced yellow onions
- 1/4 cup white rice
- 3 1/2 cups chicken stock
- 1/2 cup water
- 8 ounces trimmed asparagus (woody ends snapped off)
- 1/4 pound pancetta, diced (or substitute high-quality bacon)
- freshly ground black pepper
In a heavy 4 quart saucepan, heat half the oil (2 tablespoons) over medium heat, then add the onions and sweat gently for about ten minutes until translucent but not browned, stirring regularly.
Add the rice, stock, and water to the onions, then bring to a simmer and cook, covered tightly, until the rice is tender but not mushy, 12-20 minutes.
In a 12-inch skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat, then add the asparagus slivers and pancetta and stir to coat. Cook untouched until the edges begin to color, then stir and cook again, untouched, repeating the process until everything has nice color and has shrunk by about 1/3.
Add the pancetta/asparagus mixture to the soup, along with incredible amounts of black pepper. Boil for 1 minute and serve with crusty bread.