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Asparagus With Orange and Hazelnuts

As a 22-year old, I have lots of strong opinions on itinerant life. Moving in and out of dorm rooms for four years and then in and out of cheap apartments every six months or so really squelches the spirit, especially for someone with a strong nesting instinct. Not to mention the fact that I've planned many, many gardens over the years, bought the seeds and the starter soil, raised and pampered beautiful little seedlings, only to be thwarted by yet another move to a house with no yard or with a yard possibly contaminated by lead (that's one of the trade offs for living in a nice old house).

In essence, I've started many gardens, but this is the first year that I actually have one of my own, for real. But even now I haven't gotten around to planting the wily asparagus. I don't think asparagus is necessarily tricky to grow, but you have to relinquish garden space to something that won't produce for three years (the payoff being a perennial that produces for 8-12 years). And as much as I would like to get all my produce from my own garden, the asparagus thing probably won't happen until I really settle down for good.

That doesn't stem my desire to eat those lovely little spears, though, and even though you can find them year-round, now is the time to buy. At this point, you can still find thin spears with small, compact heads. The dreaded woody-stemmed beasts have not yet set up shop in the produce department. The only problem that I encounter with asparagus (other than the, ahem, one you aren't supposed to talk about in polite company) is what to do with it. I know, I know--roast it, steam it, sauté it. But don't you ever get bored with the usual preparations?

This is an asparagus dish that can spar with the best of them. It's white-tablecloth worthy, but wouldn't be out of place at brunch. It's flavorful but not in a kick-in-the-tastebuds kind of way. It has texture and depth and yet the essence of the asparagus stands out. And if you have any doubts about hazelnuts, this may be the dish to change your mind. Try to find hazelnuts in bulk if you can. You'll pay less for them and can buy just as many as you need. Rubbing the dark skins off the nuts isn't absolutely essential, but they do have a slightly bitter taste, and you'll want to toast them anyway--they take on an entirely different flavor profile when toasted.

Asparagus With Orange and Hazelnuts
Serves 3 to 4

Steam or boil until just tender and bright green, about 3 to 5 minutes:
     1 pound asparagus, rinsed and woody bottoms snapped off if necessary
Meanwhile, spread:
     1/4 cup hazelnuts
in a single layer on a baking sheet or the pan of a toaster oven. Toast the nuts at 325 degrees until fragrant and brown (the skins on the hazelnuts will appear burnt--this is okay--you'll end up rubbing the skins off anyway), about 5 to 8 minutes. Pour the hazelnuts into a paper bag or a clean, dry dish towel and rub them vigorously to take the skins off. Roughly chop the skinned hazelnuts.
Combine the nuts in a large skillet with:
     2 tablespoons butter
     1 1/2 tablespoons grated orange zest
     Juice of 1/2 orange
Cook over medium heat until the butter is melted and slightly browned. Add the cooked asparagus and toss several times to heat through. Season to taste with:
     Salt and black pepper
Serve warm.


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Note: Save your leek tops for stock-making. If you don't think you'll be making stock soon enough to use them before they go bad, just bag them and freeze them for later.