Tuesday, May 31, 2011

a final note on spring.

 June is upon us, and although the weather may make you think otherwise, summertime is creeping upon us. The grass is green, the humidity is creeping, markets are attempting to sell not-yet-ready corn and tomatoes, and Saturday street fairs are starting to take over the city.  So I needed to give Spring one last hurrah before we bid it adieu until next year.  With that, I give you fiddlehead ferns - violin scrolls if you will - fern fronds.  One of the quintessential signs of spring that, like most in that category, are really only around for a short period of time - so you have to get them while you can.  Furthermore, fiddleheads also have that lovely spring classification of being wild - like ramps and morels.  I assure you, nowhere to be found is the lowly fiddlehead fern farmer. 

I had arrived home for a short stint, just to find the elements of spring just peeking out - Michigan had a cold winter, and a late Spring.  By the time I left after three days, with a bit of sunshine, the land was bountiful! The grass had grown and was perfectly green, the lilacs and lilies of the valley were both budding - just waiting for the perfect moment to bloom.  Our ferns were just beginning to peak out and unfurl - so it seems I was in the right place, at the right time.  So, with family looking at me as though I was crazy (when don't they), I began to get down low to the ground, and pick a few handfuls of fronds - tightly curled, with an inch or so of a straight base.  With fronds in tow in my kitchen towel, I headed to the back deck to begin prepping the ferns.  It doesn't take much - just ensuring that the brown paper-like material (similar to what you find on peanuts) that covers the frond and its leaves is taken off as much as possible, as well as removing any dirt. 

Again, as you all may know, I am quite a purist when it comes to ingredients like these.  Since they are such a delicacy, and often hard to find, I want to be able to really enjoy and preserve the texture, identity, and pure flavor of such an item. With that being said, a straightforward preparation was in store.

Fiddlehead Ferns au Beurre Noisette
2 cups fiddlehead ferns, cleaned
4 T unsalted butter
Kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan Cheese

First, blanch the ferns.  Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat.  While the water is heating up, prepare an ice bath for the ferns.  Once the water has come to a rapid boil, add in the ferns and cook for about 2-4 minutes, until JUST fork tender but still a bit al dente.  Immediately drain and transfer to the ice bath to stop the cooking and preserve their bright green color. As soon as they are no longer warm, remove the ferns from the ice bath, let drain on a paper towel, and set aside.

To prepare the beurre noisette (really, the French way of saying brown butter), gently melt the butter over low heat in a saute pan.  When the butter has melted, you will see that it has separated into milk solids and pure, clarified butter.  Allow the butter to continue to cook, until the solids have turned a nice brown color and has a nutty, rich scent to it.  Remove from heat, and gently toss in the drained fiddlehead ferns.  Once they have been evenly coated, sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper to taste and transfer to another bowl.  If you like, you can sprinkle some freshly grated Parmesan over top as well - I used a microplane to achieve a very fine grate that would melt quickly and not be much of a distraction from the ferns themselves.

And what a beautiful and delicious preparation this was.  Again, my family looked at me like I just escaped from the loony bin when I came out with a bowl of the fiddleheads.  "Here everyone, try one - just use your fingers." Blank stares.  Confusion.  "Didn't you JUST get those from the ground a few minutes ago?" - "Can you really eat those?" - so on, and so forth.  I guess not everyone is used to grabbing something from the ground and gobbling it up!  Frankly, I shouldn't have made them taste so I could've been greedy, keeping them all to myself.  The fiddleheads were just al dente, with the ubiquitous flavors of springtime and freshness.  They truly tasted of the earth, with a flavor that can only be described as green.  They had the flavor of fresh-cut grass, with a hints of something similar to asparagus.  They carry a mild nutty flavor on their own, so the beurre noisette simply brought out that component.  The salt helped bring out the flavors, while the pepper and Parmesan created a bit of warmth and savoriness in the dish. 

And let me tell you, they were like Pringles.  Once you pop, the fun don't stop.  I had to constantly shift the bowl around the table, from corner to corner, so whomever was sitting there wouldn't eat them all up.  It was a truly tasty snack, and a perfect way to finalize my springtime ingredient enthusiasm.  These "scrolls" were gone within the next couple of weeks - matured into fully fanned-out ferns, with not an inkling of edibility.  I can't wait for next year!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

rapture of scrumdiddlyumptious-ness.

Saturday was Judgement Day.  I know, it was The Day of Rapture - but this was even more serious.  (Besides, the only Rapture I get caught up in is when Anita Baker is involved.) Silently duking it out with Entertainer Extraordinaire, Queen to many a party, chef to the celebration- MY MOTHER.  

*insert ominous doomsday sounds*

I was throwing my mother a surprise 60th birthday party. In her own house. With all of her friends that have witnessed the previous parties to end all parties in the same "event space".  My party didn't involve any bands or Motown groups, and lord knows I didn't have any servers in tuxedo shirts and bow-ties.  Have mercy, what was I thinking! Plans had been grinding away since February.  Invitations created, menu set, broken down, and set again.  Excel spreadsheets. Endless shopping lists. Party rentals.  Timetables. There was no turning back! And, of course, I took it upon myself to cook all of the food. With delight. The only problem was keeping it a secret.  But how can one be sneaky when you're dealing with the sneakiest woman on Earth? WELL. Two can play that game, and sneakiness of epic proportions unfolded over the course of four months.  Everyone was in on the game - except Delta, who tried to foil all of my plans by e-mailing my mother my flight plans. You hear that Delta? You almost blew it. Epic. Fail.

Either way, things worked out perfectly.  But it seemed like everyone was trying to raise my blood pressure, point by point. Timing was spot on, to the minute, almost frighteningly so.  I was able to sneak my mom out of the house JUST before our chafing dishes, glasses, and tables were delivered.  My dad was able to intercept every package before the mom could get to them - we all know she would've opened them, even though they have her ADULT CHILDREN'S NAMES ON THEM.  No food disasters. And everything was set and assembled literally thirty seconds before the first guests arrived - I had just enough time to change out of my whites and into a sundress.  Oh, by the way, Day of Judgement, thank you for raining for the entire week ahead of time, but being kind enough to part the clouds and have a beautiful, 77-degree, slightly breezy, cloudless day.

Needless to say, everyone was happy.  And the food was good! Crudite with bagna cauda, cherry tomatoes filled with a sage white bean puree, pissaladiere, a nice little cheese platter, billions of gougeres (I LOVE GOUGERES!), standard prosciutto di Parma with cantaloupe and grissini, random canapes, lamb persillade, and tea sandwiches, among other things.  (And I was afraid I wouldn't have enough food). The magnum of 1985 Dom Perignon Brut Rose that a friend brought wasn't a bad addition either.

Then the desserts.  A delicious cardamom-orange mascarpone tart.  And an amazingly delicious cake.  Of course, it was Martha Stewart's birthday cake a few years back, so clearly it would be good enough for the mom. An amaretto and almond dome, filled with Swiss meringue buttercream and apricot preserves, piped with little Swiss meringue peaks. Beautiful! Now, this was my biggest test.  Baking is this daunting, exacting science, and we all know I like throwing things around in the kitchen, sans measurements.  I mean, I love baking and making pastries because it makes a heck of a mess, and flour goes all over the place.  But I had one chance to bake this cake, and it was a multiple hour process.  No room for failure! Could I do it? Oh yes, I did. Luckily for me, my godmother gave me Martha's Cake Decorating Kit for my 10th birthday - brimming with icing tips, pastry bags, food coloring, and off-st spatulas.  So I had Martha on my side.  
beauteous cake set.
But I was ALMOST defeated, once again.  The final step of browning the meringue almost brought me down.  I knew we had a kitchen blow-torch...somewhere in the kitchen.  Nowhere to be found! Sent dad in the jalopy to Home Depot to buy a new kitchen blowtorch.  Upon return, myself, brother and father couldn't get the thing to work.  Why? No butane! What?! Fortunately, we have an economy size (family size?) blowtorch in the garage, and I'm lucky I didn't burn the house down.  I do love miniature things, but utilizing a giant blowtorch was a lot more personally entertaining than that little pansy, wussy handheld one. So finally, after days and hours, the cake was finished, and beautiful.  And, as I came to find out a few hours later - DELICIOUS!  So, you want to make a cake? Go for this one.  It's definitely a special occasion cake, but fully worth the effort.

Martha's Birthday Cake
(Courtesy MSLO & John Baricelli)
(Not adapted, because it's cake. And you can't mess with cake.)
1 lb. (4 sticks) unsalted butter, and some extra to butter the bowl
3 cups cake flour, plus more for sprinkling
2 t baking powder
2 cups plus 1 T sugar
2 vanilla beans
1 cup whole milk (WHOOPS. I only had skim.  So I mixed skim and whipping cream...don't tell)
8 large egg whites
Pinch of salt

To assemble (refer to the bottom of this post for the recipes!):
Amaretto Simple Syrup
John's Almond Swiss Meringue Buttercream
John's Almond Swiss Meringue
1/2 C apricot jam

First: are you ready? Prepare yourself for flour explosions, and a whole mess of time taken to make, bake and assemble this cake! Preheat the oven to 350F.  Butter the mother out of a stainless steel bowl that's about 10 inches across, and 4-5 inches deep.  Like seriously. Don't be dainty.  If you let this cake bake for it's almost 2 hour time period, and find that the cake BREAKS when you're taking it out, you will be very, very unhappy.  But at least you'll have cake to wallow in your sadness with? Butter ever millimeter of the bowl, then cover each of those millimeters with cake flour.  

Next, sift your cake flour and baking powder together into a large bowl.  Totally necessary step - it will get any of those pick clumps out, and it'll make your final cake a perfect consistency. Set aside.  Next, combine the butter and 2 cups of sugar together with an electric mixer (paddle attachment!). Don't cream them yet! Split open your vanilla beans lengthwise and scrape out all those delicious little seeds.  Save the pods - or throw them in with your sugar to make all the grains deliciously and delicately vanilla scented. If you don't have vanilla beans, you can definitely use vanilla extract (GOOD VANILLA EXTRACT, thanks Ina.) - about a teaspoon. Now you can go ahead and cream the ingredients together - beat on medium for about 3 minutes until the mixture is light and fluffy - think Easter-time pale yellow.  With the mixture on low, SLOWLY add the dry and wet ingredients, alternating as you go.  Make sure you start and end with the dry ingredients - this is no joke! Another pertinent step. And be gentle - if you put too much of either in at one time, it will go all over the floor and probably your face too (no experience in that...).  Scrape down the sides when you've added about half the ingredients, and once again before you're through.  If you don't have another bowl for your mixer, put the batter in another bowl and set aside.  Otherwise, set it aside in the same bowl, and place a clean bowl into the mixer to whip the egg whites.

I'm sure you all know, but be really careful when separating your egg whites.  If you get one inkling of yolk into the whites, or a shell, the eggs will be stubborn and not whip, at all.  So, break the eggs one at a time into a cup, and pour each individual egg white into the bowl. Egg whites don't mess around! Once you're ready, beat the egg whites on high with a whisk attachment with a pinch of salt until soft peaks form. Soft peaks = peaks that kind of flop over when you pull out the whisk.  Add 1 T sugar, and beat until glossy peaks form, from 3-5 minutes. Fold a third of this mixture into the batter to lighten it - finally fold in all the remaining whites, GENTLY, so it's light and fluffy.

Pour this mixture into your epically buttered and floured bowl, and cross your fingers.  Bake until golden brown - about an hour and forty minutes, or until an inserted skewer comes out clean.  If the top of your cake is getting to brown while cooking, you can place parchment paper of it.  Once it's ready, allow the cake to cool for five minutes, then (cross fingers again) invert on a wire rack to cool completely.

If you're lucky, the cake will come out looking pristine. To assemble, place the cake on a flat work surface and slowly cut the cake into either 3 layers using a serrated knife.  Place the first, bottom (largest) layer on a cardboard cake round - again, a tiny yet important step! This will make transportation and decorating easier. Brush the bottom layer with the amaretto simple syrup, then coat with about 1/4 inch thick layer of the buttercream.  Top with the next layer, a brush again with simple syrup. Spread a thick layer of apricot jam over this layer and top with either your final layer.  Brush the whole thing with simple syrup, and lightly coat the cake with buttercream.  Finally, pipe the meringue onto the cake with a medium-large star tip (.375-inch) to cover the entire cake.  Using a small torch (or if you're like me, a giant one), lightly brown the meringue all over.  Let the cake stand at room temperature until ready to serve, up to 6 hours.

Sounds easy right? It's not so bad, and it's fun to really see the fruits of your labor come out as something so pretty and, yes, scrumptious. So scrumptious that I didn't even get a picture of the cross-section because once someone took the first bite, it disappeared like hot cakes.  Or like cheese in a mouse house.  Or just really good cake.  The cake itself was light and fluffy, with just a hint of almond flavor, and a little brightness with the apricot jam. Perfection. 

Amaretto Simple Syrup
1 c water
1 c sugar
Amaretto/Disaronno, to taste

In a saucepan, heat up the sugar and the water, stirring until the sugar has dissolved.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes.  Remove from heat, add in your amaretto, and cool to room temperature.

John's Almond Swiss Meringue Buttercream (makes 4 cups)
5 large egg whites
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 lb (4 sticks) unsalted butter at room temp
1 t almond extract

In the bowl of your electric mixer (make sure it's heatproof!), combine the egg whites and sugar.  With the bowl over a pan of simmering water, whisk the mixture together until the sugar is all dissolved and is hot to the touch.  (This step makes your buttercream nice and shiny!) With the whisk attachment on the electric mixture, mix on low speed, slowly increasing to high speed and whip away until stiff, hyperglossy peaks form - 10 minutes or so.  Next, with the machine on low speed, add the butter to the egg whites, beating until smooth. Finally, add the almond extract mixing until combined and set aside.

John's Almond Swiss Meringue (8 cups)
8 large egg whites
2 cups sugar
1 drop almond extract
Combine all ingredients in another heatproof bowl for the electric mixer and repeat the above steps - whisking, heating, and beating until glossy peaks form.  Transfer this to the pastry bag and pipe away!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

Yes, I am borrowing a phrase coined for the one any only Cassius Clay, but alas I will not be speaking of boxing.  Instead, we will be discussing stinging nettle ravioli - continuing our lesson in spring goods! Stinging nettle is a fantastic edible weed - beside the fact that IT CAN STING YOU! I fortunately have never been stung by any of nature's wildlife/botanicals, nor do I plan on it.  I did briefly touch a leaf, but not long enough (not because I was intimidated by a plant or anything..) to feel any stinging. So, when you see stinging nettle, even in the market, don't touch it! But do buy it.  How can you eat something that you can't even touch, you ask? A simple task - the blanch! It rids the nettle of all it's stinging glory, reducing it's power down to well - just a delicious green really.  It is very similar to spinach in it's flavor, as well as how good it is for you - so really, you can take any simple spinach recipe, and kick it up with stinging nettle!

buyer beware!
So today, I decided to make a nice little spring tortellini - I had some AMAZING fresh chevre from Ardith Mae (my favorite), this crazy bunch of nettles, micro watercress, and some ramps (good looking ones!), so it was an obvious route to take in my kitchen.  Now, mind you, I did not make fresh pasta (would've been better), but I DID have some great, paper thin wonton skins in the fridge (works well in a pinch!) that I used instead.  And remember, as with any recipe, the flavoring all depends on the potency of your ingredients, but especially with one that involves an ingredient like chevre - so taste for seasoning and add different herbs to your liking!

Cassius Clay Tortellini with Puree of Ramps and Parmesan Crisp

For the tortellini:
2 cups stinging nettle, washed (put gloves on or just use tongs!!)
1/2 cup fresh chevre cheese
1/2 t salt
1/4 t white pepper (plus more to salt the water)
1/4 t black pepper
A pinch of ground nutmeg
1 T orange zest
Wonton skins, or fresh pasta rolled out and ready for some filling

Ramp Puree
1 bunch of ramps, chopped with roots and green leaves removed (save them!)
1 T olive oil
Salt, to your liking

Parmesan Crisps
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan

To begin, make your nettle filling and prep the tortellini - they can be refrigerated until you are ready to use them.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil, with about 1 T of salt.  While you're waiting for the water to boil, prepare an ice bath for the nettles after blanching.  Once the water has come to a boil, place the nettles (with tongs!) into the water.  Cook for a few minutes, allowing the water to come BACK to a boil.  Let cook for about 20 more seconds, then transfer to the ice bath.  Let the nettles cool down, and drain on a paper towel.  Note! Don't turn of the water just yet! You want to blanch the leaves from your ramps! These will only take a few seconds to cook, because they are delicate enough as it is.  Throw them in, and follow the same steps as the nettles.

IMPORTANT SIDEBAR! Did you know the remaining liquid after boiling greens actually has a name? Yes, it does. Potlikker. Originated down south and has roots with soul food.  After boiling collards, mustard greens, kale, you name it - the potlikker was consumed because of its high concentration of Vitamin K, C, and Iron. Love it!

puree, pre-seasoning
 Ok, back to real time and on to the filling.  To make life easier, you could use a food processor, but I find in a mixture like this that the final seasoning is distributed better by hand mixing - to each her own though!  I did use the food processor to puree the nettles and the chevre together, then switched over to hand mixing.  The resulting puree came out velvety, creamy, and a beautiful shade of green.  Whichever method you choose, mix the remaining ingredients together and give it a taste - if you deem the mixture needs more nutmeg - go for it.  Crazy about orange? Zest it in!  

Now is time to assemble the tortellini.  Set a bowl of warm water near your workspace - your wonton glue.  With one wonton skin in the palm of your hand, place about 1/2 teaspoon of the mixture in the center, to start - the size really depends on the size of the wonton skins.  Just make sure that none of the mixture squeezes out of the side when  forming the shape.  Wet the outer edges of the wonton after dipping your fingers in the water, and close it up, forming a triangle. Be sure to gently squeeze out any air bubbles that may be trapped inside - you want ONLY for there to be filling well...as the filling. Next wrap the wonton around the tip of your finger (like its hugging you!) and press the edges together once again, folding down the top flap as a final step.  If it's easier, you can simply fold these into little envelopes as well.  Once you've finished with all of the filling (or at least filling as many tortellinis as you need for you dish!), set the tortellini on a sheet pan with parchment paper. 

Now for the ramp puree - truly simple! Ramps have such a delicate flavor that this literally is just ramps...pureed. Heat up about 1 T of olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat.  Once the oil is shimmering, add in the chopped white section of the ramps and sweat.  Cook these until they are just starting to take on a nice golden color.  Transfer all of the ramp components to a blender, food processor, mortar, or heck just use a stick blender.  Whip it all up until smooth, drizzling in a bit of olive oil if necessary.  If you're ambitious, you can pass this through a sieve.  To keep the puree warm, you can either put it in a small sauce pan over heat, or utilize a double boiler-esque technique.  Set the mixture aside until you're ready to plate.

Finally - Preheat the oven to 400F, and bring another pot of water to a boil (you could use that cool ole potlikker if you want!), but if not, add in some more salt.  While the water and oven are both heating up, make your parmesan crisps! On a Silpat or parchment lined baking pan, either place a spoonful of grated parmesan in a mound and press down, or use something to shape the crisps.  I used my handy dandy square mold - but get creative! Want to make a heart shaped crisp? Maybe a cowboy boot or Texas shaped crisp? Go for it - I might even start using random cookie cutters for things like this come to think of it! Place the pan in the oven and cook for 3-5 minutes until golden and crisp.  Allow to cool and carefully remove them from the pan.  When your water has come to a boil, gently place the wontons into the water - these should only take a minute since the only thing that needs to cook is the skin! Because of that, make sure you're ready to go - sauce in hand, or even already in your dishes.  Once the tortellini float back up to the top (hence "float like a butterfly" - now it makes sense!), remove and place them either into your reserved puree (gently toss), or into your serving dishes.  Place the parmesan crisp on your plate and dress with a few microgreens (if you have them!). You could even go so far as to zest even MORE orange, crack some black pepper, and maybe sprinkle some fennel pollen over top, if you so desire. Serve immediately!!

Simply. Heavenly. All the flavors in this were very delicate, so nothing really masked the flavors of its companions - they each brought out great qualities of one another.  The nettles and the ramp gave a nice, but subtle earthiness to the dish, while the orange zest really brightened it up.  And the fresh chevre made the tortellini feel like little clouds.  Most importantly, the dish was striking.  The puree and the filling of the tortellini had a gorgeous emerald hue.  So, if you see nettles around, pick some up (NOT LITERALLY!) and give these a shot - you won't regret it.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

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!