Friends, today is the day I almost told you a story about the time I made a recipe I'd had my eye on for forever, and it was a total dud.
The recipe came from Elaine Sciolino, by way of the NYT dining section. Sciolino shared it last year, along with the jealousy-inducing tale of her adventures foraging white asparagus in the forests of France. The white asparagus in the pictures that accompany the article look they were pulled from the earth: they're a rustic shade of white, with dull black bottoms. They look like springtime.
I don't have easy access to the forests of France, nor my own personal crop of white asparagus. I do, however, have easy access to a grocery store. Determined to finally make this recipe, I went to the nearest Whole Foods and spent too much money on creamy, pale stalks of organic white asparagus from California. Then I headed home, pulled up the recipe, and tried to make magic.
The original recipe has you bundle the white asparagus standing up, wrap them in a thick layer of tin foil, stick a pat of butter on the tips of the spears, and roast upright until (supposedly) they were just tender. But after 45 minutes under 400-degree heat, my asparagus were still extremely crunchy - not to mention insipid. Blame the asparagus? Perhaps. Regardless, not a promising sign.
While the asparagus cook, you're meant to make a simple sauce of salted cashews and milk. The flavor is fantastic - sweet and mild, a perfect white-on-white pairing with the asparagus. But Sciolino's original recipe calls for cashew powder to be stirred into milk. This means you must grind cashews to a powder while taking great care to not let them turn into a paste. It also means that the final product, milk thickened with powdered cashews, has a somewhat chunky texture, where I'd much prefer a smooth, creamy sauce.
Last but not least: the asparagus begged so desperately for salt that when I first made this, I actually sprinkled some flaky salt onto the finished dish. So much had gone wrong! I was almost ready to call the dish a dud.
But then, so belatedly, my instincts kicked in. With my precious second batch of white asparagus, I did what I always do with the green ones: roasted them in salt and pepper. For the sauce, I borrowed a technique from a favorite Indian recipe, and soaked the cashews in the milk while the asparagus cooked. Then I immersion-blended the mixture until smooth, before heating briefly just to thicken it a bit. The result was a smoother, creamier sauce: success.
The julienned topping required no changes, except that this lazy bum simply peeled some shavings instead of doing a proper julienne. That change, too, was a net improvement.
So was this recipe a dud? Sort of. Should you make the version I'm sharing below? Absolutely. And do me a favor: if you find yourself at all near the forests of France during white asparagus season, go pick some, and try the original recipe again. I bet there's magic in there, somewhere.
White Asparagus with Cashew Cream SauceHeavily adapted from Elaine Sciolino, via the New York Times
Serves 4 as an appetizer
1 1/2 cups salted cashews 1/2 cup milk 2 bunches (about 16-20 stalks) white asparagus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided salt and pepper 2 tablespoons minced chives
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Combine the cashews, the milk, and 1/2 cup of water in a small saucepan. Let the cashews steep in the liquid while you prepare and roast the asparagus.
Cut the top 3 1/2 inches of each asparagus stalk and set aside. These are the pieces you will roast. Take 4 of the stem ends, peel away some of the fibrous exterior, then peel shreds of the inner layers of the 4 stems into a small bowl. Add chives and 2 teaspoons of the olive oil, along with a 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Stir, and set aside. (Reserve the remaining stems for a soup, or chop them into tiny coins and add to a mixed salad.)
Toss the asparagus tops with the remaining olive oil, sprinkle lightly with about 1 - 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and a few grinds of pepper, and spread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast asparagus for 15-20 minutes, checking periodically for doneness, until asparagus are crisp-tender. If they're particularly thick or fibrous, they may need a few extra minutes, but try not to overcook them.
When the asparagus are nearly done, use an immersion or regular blender to blend the cashews, milk, and water until completely (or near-completely) smooth. Then heat until the mixture just comes to a boil. Set aside.
To serve, arrange a large spoonful of the cashew cream in the center of each plate; top with 4 asparagus tops; and finish with a spoonful of the shaved asparagus stems. Alternatively, serve the dish family-style: Spoon all the cashew cream into the center of a long serving plate, set the asparagus tops across the cream, and finish with a bit pile of the shaved stems.
To gild the lily, you can pulverize a handful of salted cashews and sprinkle them over the finished dish. The crunch is nice, but not essential, especially if you're trying to minimize utensils and steps.