Sometime in the late 17th century, English writer and essayist Charles Lamb penned this observation, “Asparagus inspires gentle thoughts.” Lamb’s quote evokes a memory of a conversation that took place every year around spring time in the cozy kitchen of my childhood home where my mother, grandmothers and aunts loved to share recipe ideas for whatever fruit or vegetable was coming into season. But what did the quote mean to Lamb? To satisfy my curiosity, I embarked on a search for its origin.
Come spring, asparagus is one of the first fresh vegetables to inch up through winter’s hard, stubborn soil. When I was growing up this vegetable was celebrated like a birthday—it was a delicacy, consumed and appreciated in abundance. When the asparagus season finished its growing cycle, it wasn’t seen again until the following spring when the green shoots broke through the earth and it was enjoyed once more.
Today, supermarkets carry asparagus year round. I’ve often wondered how shoppers would react if grocery store produce departments offered published frequent flier miles for various fruits and vegetables purchased within a given year. What fruit or vegetable would earn the largest number of miles? In fact, the asparagus in the produce bin of most stores has logged more miles in a week than commercial airline employees! By the time this delicate vegetable finds its way into your cart, it has traveled far – and long.
Throughout my childhood, following food seasons was our way of life―we never ate tomatoes in December, zucchini in February, peaches in April, or asparagus in August, simply because those items were not available off-season. To this day, despite the abundance of off-season produce in most supermarkets, I follow food seasons because consuming fruits and vegetables out of their season seems unnatural to me. Following food seasons promotes better health, reduces stress on the environment, and supports local communities and farmers. On a more immediate note, fresh in-season produce is generally less expensive and has better taste and nutritional value since its farm-to-table transit time is a fraction of that accrued by fruit and vegetables flown in from South America or even California.
The inspiration for Lamb’s quote still eludes me but during my search I came upon a quote from Mario Batali, American chef, writer, and restaurateur. He wrote, “You know, when you get your first asparagus, or your first acorn squash, or your first really good tomato of the season, those are the moments that define the cook’s year. I get more excited by that than anything else.” I could not agree more.
During my childhood in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I don’t recall eating asparagus in any of the imaginative creative and inspired ways we do today – steamed and served with hollandaise was the default preparation. But now there are so many possibilities for these tasty spears: for example, they make a great accompaniment to eggs and are wonderful when added to assorted lettuce leaf salads and grains like quinoa, couscous and wild rice. Asparagus is delicious when roasted or grilled, and of course, there is the well-known, crowd-pleasing gourmet standby: tender spears wrapped in prosciutto.
My recipe for asparagus and shrimp with grilled halloumi from my cookbook, Tasting the Seasons is one of my extended family’s all-time favorites.
Asparagus and Shrimp with Grilled Halloumi
Halloumi ranks as one of my favorite cheeses because of its wonderful flavor and texture. And who wouldn’t marvel at a cheese that can be sautéed or grilled yet still keeps its shape and doesn’t melt? On the day I first tried this recipe, my sister was dropping off her two Norwich terriers for an overnight visit, and she and a friend arrived just in time for the taste-testing. They loved my creation, so I submitted the recipe to the Features Editor of the Examiner, who promptly published it.
- 1 pound large shrimp, cooked, peeled and deveined
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Several grindings of freshly ground black pepper
- 1 bunch fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ½ pound halloumi cheese, cubed
- 2 tablespoons toasted sunflower seeds
In a medium bowl, combine shrimp with 3 tablespoons olive oil, lemon juice, salt and black pepper. Marinate for 3 hours. Cook asparagus in rumbling water for 3–5 minutes or until desired tenderness; for best results, asparagus should be tender crisp. Run asparagus under coldwater, or let them sit in an ice bath until cooled. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium skillet over moderate heat, add halloumi cubes and sauté for about 2 minutes or until just slightly brown. Place 4–5 shrimp into each of 6 rimmed serving bowls. Top the shrimp with asparagus pieces and cubes of halloumi cheese. Spoon reserved marinade over the ingredients, distributing evenly and top with toasted sunflower seeds. Serve immediately.