Gamberi al Forno con gli Asparagi

Baked Shrimp with Asparagus

During the early 1980s one of the best places to eat in Venice was (and still is at this writing) Fiore, a former osteria, a wine pub, taken over by a handsome, tireless young couple, Maurizio and Mara Martin. Mara does all the cooking, some firmly traditional, some of her own devising. One of her dishes I have admired is a creamy risotto with shrimp and asparagus; it led me, in turn, to derive from it a baked dish with all the same ingredients except for the rice. The rice I replaced with boiled potatoes mashed through a food mill.

Among the ingredients of this recipe are butter, cream, and Parmesan, apparently violating one of the most frequently repeated axioms of Italian cooks, that one does not use dairy products with fish. Some people do, however, who are indisputably Italian.

In Italy, olive oil is without question the traditionally preferred ingredient to cook fish with. It is the one that I, along with every other Italian cook, would automatically turn to, for there can be no more apt combination of flavors. When I am not cooking automatically, however, when I am reaching for a less obvious statement of flavor, I find that butter and cheese—natural and historic products of the Northern Italian plain—can extend, rather than distort, the expressiveness of my native seafood cuisine.

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Ingredients

  • 2 pounds asparagus
  • Salt
  • 2 pounds medium shrimp, in their shells
  • ½ pound potatoes
  • cup chopped onion
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • ½ cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano (Parmesan), plus 2 tablespoons for topping
  • Black pepper in a grinder

Method

  1. Trim the asparagus, cutting off 1 inch or more of the hard root end and peeling away the tough green skin from the lower half of the stalk. Wash thoroughly in 1 or 2 changes of cold water.
  2. Choose a shallow pan that can accommodate all the asparagus lying flat. Pour in about 2 inches of water and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of salt and, when the water resumes boiling, slip in the asparagus and cover the pan. Cook for just a few minutes—depending on the freshness and thickness of the vegetable—until the asparagus is barely tender, but still firm to the bite. Drain and set aside to cool.
  3. When the asparagus has cooled, cut it into pieces inches long.
  4. Shell the shrimp, remove the dark vein just below the surface of their backs, and wash them in cold water. Pat thoroughly dry with kitchen towels.
  5. Wash the potatoes and boil them, un-peeled, in abundant water. When they are done, drain them, peel them, and pass them through a food mill or potato ricer into a bowl large enough to accommodate later all the other ingredients.
  6. Turn on the oven to 450°.
  7. In a medium saucepan put the chopped onion, 3 tablespoons of the butter, and the vegetable oil and turn on the heat to medium. Sauté the onion until it becomes colored a deep gold or even very light brown. Add the asparagus, turn up the heat to high, and sauté the asparagus, turning them constantly, for 3 to 4 minutes.
  8. Transfer the asparagus with all the pan juices to the bowl containing the potatoes. Add the cream, ½ cup of grated cheese, salt, liberal grindings of pepper, and the shrimp. Toss thoroughly.
  9. Choose a 12- by 9-inch oven-to-table baking dish (or its equivalent). Smear the bottom with a little butter. Pour into it all the contents of the bowl, leveling with a spatula. Sprinkle the top with 2 tablespoons of grated cheese, and dot with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.
  10. Bake in the uppermost level of the preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the shrimp. After removing the dish from the oven, allow it to settle for 5 minutes before serving.

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