I remember when asparagus was something you couldn’t buy all year round. I grew up in the 80s, already the era of year round produce imported from around the world, but asparagus, at least in Alberta, remained a spring time treat we’d eat a little after Easter each year. Blanched briefly with a little salted butter and a squeeze of lemon juice, or for a special treat with a good pouring of homemade hollandaise sauce, it wasn’t something we ate all the time. I remember it tasting so good – crisp, fresh, and vibrant green. I would distribute it to our plates spear by spear so everyone got an equal share of the treasure.
And then at somepoint, I can’t quite pinpoint when exactly, asparagus was suddenly everywhere all the time, and rather than the tender spring treat, it became just another green vegetable. We’ve all been there: February and friends coming for dinner, a quick dash to the supermarket and we spy it: lanky green spears splashed with purple. We can’t help ourselves, it is February after all, and we’ve been eating root veggies and kale for months now, so we throw the asparagus into the basket and take it home to cook. Always such a disappointment, I’ve been known to complain and regret for weeks.
Springtime’s fresh crop of tender asparagus deserves a celebration in the kitchen. This recipe does asparagus culinary justice, accenting but not overwhleming its flavor. I adapted the recipe from the A16 Cookbook, written by the owners of A16 in San Francisco, a restaurant dedicated to the cuisine of Italy between Naples and Puglia (the name is for the highway that traverses that region.) A tasty little preparation, it serves 4-6 as a first course or, as we ate it, 2 as a main course with a little bread and cheese on the side. The walnut crema has the texture of a creamy hummus and makes a lush bed for the still-crunchy spears. This would also make a perfect springtime hors d’œuvre: serve the crema in a bowl topped with olive oil, toasted walnuts, and shaved pecorino and have guests dip the roasted asparagus.
For the Walnut Crema
¾ cup walnuts
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus ½ tbsp
½ cup red onion, chopped
For the Asparagus
Extra virgin olive oil
1 large bunch asparagus
½ cup walnuts, toasted
Pecorino, thinly shaved using a vegetable peeler (I used Romano)
A little lemon juice
Make the Crema
Boil a small pot of salted water and blanche the walnuts 8-10 minutes until somewhat tender when pierced. Drain and reserve ¼ cup of the cooking liquid. Heat ½ tbsp olive oil in a small suatee pan and cook the onions with a little salt over medium heat until golden brown and tender (about 5 minutes.)
Combine the walnuts, the cooking liquid, and the onions in the bowl of a food processor and process until creamy. Slowly drizzle in the ¼ cup of olive oil. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Set aside at room temperature. The crema can be made up to 3 days ahead and stored in the refrigerator, just bring it to room temperature before serving.
Roast the Asparagus
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Break off the tough ends of the asparagus and rinse and pat dry. Toss the asparagus with olive oil and salt, and line up on a baking tray. Roast for 4-8 minutes depending on its size until bright green and tender. Do not overcook.
Spoon the crema over the bottom of a small platter or individual plates. Lay the asparagus on top of the crema and top with a little lemon juice, the toasted walnuts, and the shaved pecorino.