Update 3/11/10: My uncle passed away last night, after fighting for more than a year longer than we thought he would, and just a few days after my parents went to see him and brought him cookies. I will miss him.

skies that stretch

My great uncle seems to be dying. I found out Saturday, after brunch, walking next to my mom and my brother in the crisp spring air that made us hug our arms to our chests and pinch our fingers into fists.

It’s not like I knew him very well. I actually don’t think I’ve seen him since four years ago or more, at that family reunion after his daughter’s wedding. But I saw him a lot when my grandma was sick. He was healthy then, much healthier than she was, and he and his daughter—my mom’s cousin—sat with us at our dinner table and told stories about his wife, my grandma’s sister, who used to make me spaghetti and meatballs when we’d go to her house, climbing up tall steps to her back porch and into the kitchen.

And he was there for my graduation parties, and he always sent me a crisp $5 in a Christmas card, all through my growing up years. When I had to write a paper on someone who’d survived the Depression, it as just after my grandma had died, and he was the only relative from her generation left. So I mailed the interview questions to Uncle Lindy, and he filled them all out, every one, with scratchy penmanship in lines that were straight without trying. He wrote that there were no jobs then, people had to share a can of tomatoes for dinner, his paper route paid $2.50 a week. And I kept all those sheets, put them in a big green box in my cabinets.

I’m supposed to visit him in the hospital this week. But seeing him means seeing Grandma, remembering her days in the hospital, when her body was shriveled and sick, when she didn’t always know who I was. I brought her a photo album one visit, telling her about a school banquet and showing her the blue dress I wore, and she called me Nancy, my mom’s name, and she fell asleep. I don’t know if she knew we were there when we rubbed rose lotion on her legs and her arms and played music in the background, talking to her and touching her when she couldn’t respond, but most of the time I say she did.

asparagus with walnut crema

This last weekend, on Easter Sunday, while my great uncle was in a hospital and my grandma had been gone for nine-and-a-half years, my family of four ate a feast of pot roast and chicken, with bread stuffing, salad, rolls, cranberry sauce, caramel cake, banana cream pie, roasted asparagus with walnut crema. We ate until we were full, very full, enough to pat our bellies and wander to big chairs. And I had one of those moments that I have sometimes, the kind where I look at my family and think, this is very good. I wanted to stop time right there, to keep from growing older, from seeing the breath of life puff away from any of us, any of them. And then I remembered what we were celebrating on Easter: death to life, hope fulfilled, sorrow replaced by joy. Joy that this life is not all there is, joy that what will come is better.

That was very good, too.

Roasted Asparagus with Walnut Crema and Pecorino
Adapted from Orangette, originally from A16: Food + Wine

As Molly did, I substituted Pecorino Romano for Pecorino Tartufo—it was much easier to find. I had forgotten how much I loved Pecorino, which I first remember having on a salad last summer in Sausalito, at a charming Italian restaurant on our way into the downtown. It’s wonderful with the roasted asparagus, which, when cooked at 500 degrees F in your oven, emerges tender and slightly charred, just like those pizzas I love so much. The mingling of olive oil and sea salt gives it its flavor, complemented by the walnut crema, which has the consistency of hummus and the unmistakable taste of toasted walnuts, slightly bitter and nutty.

For walnut crema:
Kosher salt
1 ½ cups raw walnuts
½ cup plus 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, diced (about 1 cup)

For asparagus:
3 bunches fat asparagus (about 30 spears, total)
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
1 block Pecorino Romano or Pecorino Tartufo

The walnut crema may be made a day ahead of time, which is what I did, tightly covered in the refrigerator. Start by boiling a medium-sized pot of salted water and adding the walnuts, blanching them for 8 to 10 minutes or until tender. (Really focus on them being tender here—it will make the chopping/blending process a lot easier.) After cooking, drain the walnuts and reserve 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Set aside.

In a small skillet, heat 1 Tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add the chopped onions and a generous pinch of salt, and sweat for about seven minutes, until golden brown and soft. Remove from heat.

In the bowl of a food processor, mix the walnuts, 1/4 cup of the reserved cooking water and the onion, and process until creamy. Add a generous amount of salt to taste. With the motor running, slowly add ½ cup olive oil, processing until blended and the texture of hummus. If it seems too thick, add a little water or what’s left of the cooking water. Taste again for seasoning, and then transfer to a bowl or other container. Cover, and hold at room temperature, or if storing to use later, tightly cover and put it in the refrigerator.

When ready to roast the asparagus, remove the crema from the fridge and bring to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 500°F. Line two baking sheets with aluminum foil.

Snap the tough ends from the asparagus spears. Rinse them and dry them well. Spread them out in a single layer on the baking sheets and drizzle with olive oil. Then, using your hands, roll the spears around in the oil to get them covered. Season with coarse salt. Bake for about 8 minutes, shaking the pan once or twice, until blistered, slightly charred, and tender.

To serve, spoon the crema out across the bottom of a platter, and arrange the cooked asparagus spears on top. While the asparagus is still hot, shave Pecorino generously over the platter. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil, and serve immediately.

Yield: 6 (first-course) servings

Shanna Mallon

Shanna Mallon started Food Loves Writing back in 2008, as a way to remember her grandma and write about her life through food. Since then it's become a place leading her to a lifestyle of eating whole foods, a new home in Nashville and the love of her life, Tim. Follow Shanna on Twitter @foodloves, keep up with Food Loves Writing on Facebook and stay inspired with the monthly newsletter.

This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. Jacqui

    lovely post, shanna. and i love asparagus! i hope your great uncle is ok, and i’m sure your visit will mean a lot to him.

  2. Sarah L

    what a poignant post. reminds me of my grandfather. thanks for sharing.

  3. marilyn @ simmer till done

    Shanna, this is such a lovely post, straight from the heart to the plate.

  4. meeso

    It’s very touching reading this as I am watching my father struggle with cancer and having seen many of my close relatives slowly leave this world… Cherish every moment you have.

  5. TJ

    Life is too short. Wonderful post!

  6. Maggie

    I came for the asparagus (thanks tastespotting!) and am so happy I did. Very touching post and a great reminder to live life to the fullest and spend as much time as we can with loved ones.

  7. Shannalee

    Thanks everyone, for the kind responses.

    Meeso – I’m so sorry to hear about your father, and I prayed for your family when I read this.

    Maggie – Welcome and yes, I agree!

  8. Sue

    I recently “discovered” asparagus, so I’m hoping to try this! Yum. Your post was very moving- I want to go hug all my loved ones now. Thanks for sharing!

  9. maris

    I love roasted asparagus…your photos are fantastic, too! I found your blog from Jess @ Everyday Adventures and I’ll definitely be stopping back to read more.

    Also, my thoughts are with you and your family…I’m glad you were able to enjoy Easter together.

    Have a nice weekend!

  10. Shannalee

    Sue – Your first comment! I see that you’ve gone and started your own little piece of the Internet, by the way, and I’m captivated. That gorgeous little girl might have something to do with it.

    Maris – Thanks so much for stopping by. Love Jess’s blog and glad to have you!

  11. Pingback: trust me on this | asparagus salad | food loves writing

  12. Tim

    Not only was this a wonderful post, but I think those asparagus are right up my alley, ha

  13. Shannalee

    Hey thanks! And I agree. Seriously think every vegetable tastes better roasted.

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