in spring time, the only pretty ring time

I know, I know - greenery abounds on Stainless Steel, but I can't help it...All of nature's goodies have come out to play!  This week's top choice - asparagus.  Lovely, slender, bright green with slightly purple tops, and standing perfectly upright - no rubbery, wrinkled spears in sight.  One note: when you do buy asparagus, place them all upright in a jar with cold water.  This will help the asparagus stay crisp and fresh...sometimes you can even rejuvenate the slightly wobbly ones.  

Asparagus really is a cool little vegetable when you cozy up and get to know a little more about it.  It's actually a perennial shoot that arises form an underground stem - the only part of the plant that stays year round.  These guys can even hang around for up to 20 years or more.  Better yet, when the weather and soil get warm, the spears can grow up to 8 inches in one day - word has it that you can actually see the asparagus grow during these times.  I have yet to experience it, but I might start growing my own just to get to the bottom of it. 

As far as variety goes, you can pick white, white with purple tips, green, green with purple tips, or even straight up purple/violet spears.  You may have seen white asparagus around - I even saw some GIANT white asparagus the other day at my mercato italiano.  Literally, the diameter of a silver dollar or more - I envision cutting these on the bias and sauteeing them with a warm tarragon vinaigrette, or something of that nature.  White asparagus are much more mild and delicate in flavor than they're more chlorophyllic older siblings.  Why you say? Actually, white asparagus are no different than your green and purple varieties - the only difference is that during the growth season, as soon as the shoots appear, soil is piled on top, and they are allowed to grow sans sunlight until they are ready to harvest.  

The purple varieties have a bit more sugar than green, giving them a sweeter, nuttier flavor.  This difference comes from our lovely friends anthocyanins - the same phytochemical that gives everything ruby and purple colored in nature their color, as well as their lovely, powerful antioxidants.  Think red wine, blueberries, pomegranates, acai.  Oh, and if you can ever find wild asparagus, snatch them up immediately. No matter what variety you choose, you can't really go wrong!

With these little lovelies in hand, I wanted to showcase as well as expound on the flavor of the spears.  I could've sat round for days coming up, and then trying to decide on a recipe to go with, but I was too impatient on this day - I had to stick to an amazing standby from my friend Nate Appleman, previously of A16 (San Fran) and Pulino's (NYC).  The dish in mind - Roasted Asparagus with Walnut Crema.  This dish is so simple and so amazing that I can hardly stand it! Walnuts. Asparagus. Plus some other minor things. That's it! The crema itself is so good, I often make double the amount to use as a simple dip for vegetables, crackers, pita, on a spoon....that good.  So, gather your goodies and cook away!

Roasted Asparagus with Walnut Crema (Courtesy A16 cookbook)

For the crema:
1.5 cups walnuts
1/2 cup plus 1 T olive oil
1 cup diced onion (red, yellow, Maui, sweet, whichever you have)
Kosher Salt

For the asparagus:
1/4 cup olive oil
2 bunches fresh asparagus
Kosher salt
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
Additional, but not necessary: Pecorino Tartufo, plain Pecorino, or Parmesan, shaved with a peeler

First, you're going to blanch the walnuts.  Grab a saucepot large enough to hold all of your walnuts, plus enough water to cover. Bring water, plus a few teaspoons of salt to a boil, and gently toss in the walnuts.  Allow these to cook for about 8 to 10 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife.  Drain the walnuts, being sure to keep at least 1/4 of the cooking liquid for later.  Set both the liquid and walnuts aside.

In a saute pan, heat one tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat.  Once the oil is shimmering, add in the diced onion along with a teaspoon of salt.  Allow the onions to sweat, stirring often until soft and slightly caramelized. Remove from heat.

Now on to the fun! In a food processor or blender, add in the onions, walnuts, and walnut cooking liquid and puree until smooth. Scrape down the sides with a spatula, and slowly drizzle in the olive oil with the processor running, until it has a smooth consistency.  The crema should be extra creamy - hence crema, right?  Give it a taste, and add salt if necessary. Try not to eat too much of it, and don't use the excuse that you're just testing again to see if it's perfect yet.  Not that that has ever happened?  Set the crema aside and start cooking up the asparagus!

Preheat the oven to about 300F degrees.  While the oven is getting to temp, prep the asparagus.  The root end of asparagus is rather woody, so you want to get rid of this.  The easiest way is to simply snap it off! Literally.  Hold your spear upright on a cutting board/flat surface.  While holding the base of the asparagus with one hand, grab the spear around the middle and slowly bend.  The asparagus should snap right where the tougher portion disappears.  If you like, you can peel them, but I find that unnecessary.  Place all the asparagus in a large baking dish in one layer, and drizzle with a tablespoon or two of olive oil, and sprinkle with a teaspoon of salt. Toss 'em around until they are evenly coated and place in the oven.  Cook until they are just tender - al dente if you will - about 8 minutes or so, but it really depends on the thickness of your spears. 

To plate:  As always take the liberty to plate however you wish with any dish! Place your asparagus on a serving platter, and spoon the crema over top.  Sprinkle with a the toasted walnuts (and cheese if you're using it) and eat away!

I cannot even emphasize how much I love this.  The walnuts pair so well with the asparagus, yet the crema is light enough to let the vegetable themselves shine through.  You would honestly think there was butter, or cream, or somethign horribly fattening for you the crema - but no! It is pure, walnut-y goodness, with an elevated nuttiness from the onions.  Texturally speaking, this dish plays a nice little game as well.  The crema - obviously creamy, juxtaposed with the crisp, yet tender asparagus, and the crunch of the toasted walnuts. Brilliant!

Nate Appleman, come on over!


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