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I'm thinking spring

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Slim green stalks of asparagus standing tall in cool shallow water beckoned me from their place in the produce department of my grocery store the other day. Getting closer, I examined them carefully, looking for firm, smooth stalks with dry tight buds at the tips. I carefully wrapped them in a plastic bag and set them in my shopping cart. I was taking a little sign of spring and fresh possibilities back to my kitchen.

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Oddly enough, asparagus are lilies. So when I bring asparagus home, I treat them as fresh flowers. I cut a thin slice from the bottom of each stalk and set them in a deep glass or jar in about an inch of water. They will absorb water up through their stems just as flowers do. I store them in the refrigerator, but never longer than a day or two. I wash the asparagus at the time I will be preparing them. I have fun snapping off the woody bottom of each individual stalk. They tend to break naturally where the woody portion of the spear ends and the tender part begins.

I decided on a baked pasta dish to show off the lovely green asparagus. Sautéed with sweet green peas, some onion and garlic and then simmered in wine and chicken broth before being tossed with tube-shaped pasta, Baked Ziti with Sweet Peas, Asparagus and Ham was enticing as I pulled it from the oven.

"Hollow tubes called ziti translate as 'bridegrooms' and are impossible to eat without breaking," Lynne Rosetto Kasper tells us in her book "The Italian Country Table" (Scribner, 1999). "So, Italian cooks take them down to manageable lengths. It's one of the few times I've ever seen pasta purposely broken in Italy."

The ziti in this recipe makes it a perfect dish to serve to guests at a wedding shower. I used ziti that had already been cut to shorter lengths. The box of pasta was labeled zita. Feel free to substitute the pasta you have on hand, such as bow tie or penne.

Bread crumbs and ground toasted hazelnuts are sprinkled over layers of the asparagus-pasta mixture, finely chopped ham and mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. The layers can be assembled and refrigerated up to a day before serving. Let the dish sit out at room temperature to warm up a little before baking. At my house, we served Baked Ziti with Sweet Peas, Asparagus and Ham alongside grilled steaks. But it can easily be served as a very satisfying main dish.

You'll bring spring into your kitchen when you make Baked Ziti with Sweet Peas, Asparagus and Ham.

Baked Ziti with Sweet Peas, Asparagus and Ham

12 ounces uncooked ziti

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 cup thinly sliced onions

1 pound fresh asparagus, tough ends snapped off, cut into 1-inch diagonal pieces

1-1/2 cups frozen sweet peas, thawed

1 tablespoon (about 3 cloves) minced garlic

1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 cup dry white wine

1-1/2 cups chicken broth

2/3 cup heavy whipping cream

Salt and pepper to taste

1/4 pound ham, chopped very fine

2 cups (8 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup fine fresh bread crumbs

1/3 cup hazelnuts, toasted, ground or chopped very fine

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain well. Toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil and set aside.

Combine bread crumbs and hazelnuts and set aside.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in large skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add onions and sauté until softened. Add asparagus and peas and continue to sauté for about 4 more minutes. Asparagus will be bright green and tender-crisp. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and continue to sauté for 1 or 2 more minutes.

Add wine to the pan and cook until it has almost completely evaporated, about 3 minutes. Add chicken broth and continue to cook until the liquid has evaporated by about one-third. Stir in whipping cream and cook just until mixture is heated through. Season with salt and pepper. Add cooked pasta and toss well.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat a 9- x 13-inch glass baking dish with non-stick cooking spray.

Layer half of pasta mixture, half of ham, half of mozzarella and parmesan. Repeat layers. Sprinkle bread crumb mixture over the top, using as much as desired. Leftover bread crumb mixture can be frozen in a tightly sealed plastic container or jar and used as needed.

Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 25 minutes, until cheese is melted and sauce is bubbling. Easily serves 8 as a side dish or 6 as an entrée.

Tips from the cook

--To toast hazelnuts (sometimes called filberts), place them on a baking sheet. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes. Immediately transfer the nuts to a clean kitchen towel. Roll the hot hazelnuts up in the towel and rub gently to remove the skins. It's OK if not every bit of the dark brown skins come off. You can watch the procedure on this week's video.

--Leftover bread crumb/hazelnut mixture can be sprinkled over macaroni and cheese or a dish of cheesy potatoes before baking.

--I found that one small piece of whole grain bread made 1/2 cup of crumbs in my food processor. I added the whole toasted hazelnuts to the bread crumbs in the food processor and ground them with the bread crumbs. This method produced very fine crumbs and I didn't have to worry about the hazelnuts turning into nut butter.

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