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.
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.
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.
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:
1 ½ cups raw walnuts
½ cup plus 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, diced (about 1 cup)
3 bunches fat asparagus (about 30 spears, total)
Extra virgin olive oil
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