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Asparagus and prawns - first recipe

"Even as I write, pears are poaching in the kitchen and chicken is marinating. I'm expecting friends tonight. I'm not worried!"

Madhur Jaffrey

Yes, I'm going to talk about asparagus and prawns - and the particular dish shown above - presented two different ways - but the quote was chosen to illustrate the philosophy behind this particular cookbook from my shelves.

This is the next book along my shelves, and the last Madhur Jaffrey one for now - there are more elsewhere on other shelves. It's not an Indian one though, or even an Asian one. It is simply called Madhur Jaffrey's Cookbook: food for family and friends and interestingly, when I went searching for an online picture of the cover, I could not find one, so have had to scan my own copy. And there on the cover is the first recipe in the book Asparagus with prawns (shrimp). The version on the left above is taken from the photograph of the meal that it is part of. I assume that the Americans call prawns shrimps. To me shrimps are small and prawns are big with really big ones becoming crayfish. I will come to the recipe and the topic of asparagus and prawns in a moment but first a couple of words about this book, which is possibly my favourite Madhur Jaffrey cookbook. And I think that is because it's like all my favourite cookbooks, vaguely familiar dishes with a slight twist that makes them special.

The book is a hardback and is nicely designed and arranged. It is arranged in sections - fish, chicken, meat, soups and light fare, brunches and teas, and desserts, and within each section there are menus so that you get all those other things too. There is generally a double page spread photograph of the entire meal and some rather lovely drawings (as here) to introduce each section and each menu. And each menu and dish has a brief introduction as to how it came to be, how to organise, and various other chatty comments. She describes her aim thus:

"I want the food to be superb - how could I be satisfied with anything else? - and the cooking to be easy. It can be done."

And incidentally, in a nice touch, this particular book is:

"dedicated with much love and gratitude to Aleene and Willis Allen (the best parents-in-law I know) whom I have pestered with questions (culinary and otherwise) these last twenty years."

I always read dedications, and acknowledgements too - unless they are just a long list of names. You sometimes get a little glimpse into somebody's life. The book was written way back in 1987 and it is sort of an expression of her life in food up to that point.

"The foods in this book are not just from India, where I was born, or from America, the land I have happily adopted. They are from wherever I have been in the past fifty years, wherever I have eaten. They are the sum of my experience, blending cooking techniques and seasonings from all over the world."

So on to the first recipe prawns and asparagus. It is the starter for a meal she calls 'Light and very elegant,' and which besides the asparagus and prawns consists of Steamed whole fish with sesame seed dressing and Rice with mushrooms, green pepper and beans. But it's the asparagus and prawns we are looking at here - and it is indeed simple with a nice little tale of its invention which I will quote in full here.

"This dish was born strangely. One day I had cooked asparagus in a Chinese style for lunch and my husband had sautéed prawns (shrimp) in an Italian style for dinner. The first dish had been flavoured with sesame oil and the second dish with olive oil. There were leftovers at both means and I had carefully packed them in separate plastic containers and refrigerated them. Next day, a friend dropped in unexpectedly for dinner. We decided to make pasta for the main course - we had all the ingredients - but what would we do for a starter? It was sorely needed. I opened the refrigerator and stared at it for a moment. Then I emptied the two containers of asparagus and prawns (shrimp) into a single bowl and threw a salad dressing over them. Voilà! a new amazingly good dish was born."

Well that's we all do on a daily basis - sort of - isn't it? Particularly in the current crisis. And it's a perfect example of the kind of dish that you will find in this book. Simple but different. I love it. I couldn't find the recipe online, but really it is hardly a recipe. You cook the asparagus by tossing in some oil in a frypan, add a little water, cover and cook for a few minutes, add a little sesame oil and reduce. The prawns are simply fried in olive oil with garlic. Parsley sautéed in the oil and tossed over the prawns. Combine asparagus and prawns and pour over salad dressing. There you go.

To conclude I had a quick look to see what others had done with asparagus and prawns and found that it's a really common, dare I say trendy combination. Here are some of the dishes I found, but there are heaps more. Two from supermarkets to begin with. The first from Coles - One-pan roasted prawns with Parmesan asparagus, and one from England's Sainsbury's - Prawn and asparagus tagliatelle. And I have to say that these two probably represent the vast majority of the approaches - for the roasted prawns substitute barbecued or grilled as well.

As an example of the celebrity chef approach Nigel Slater had two dishes - Prawn broth with asparagus and Asparagus and prawn tart. Of course there are heaps more examples of these too. Sometimes the soup emphasis is on the asparagus sometimes the prawns but there are lots of examples.

And let's not forget the stir fry approach. I don't have an actual example of a recipe here - just a lovely picture, but I'm sure you could make one up from whatever you have in your fridge.

I will finish with a truly weird dish - again from Sainsbury's. I'm not sure i would necessarily recommend this as an experiment but it's certainly worth noting! It's called Prawn and asparagus sandwich cake. The filling is cheesy I think.

Of course, on reflection asparagus and prawns are not a good choice for this time of year. It's a springtime thing isn't it? And it's obviously a classic combination. But it is a good example of the approach in this book. In the pages of this book are several recipes that I make over and over again - there is a particularly good chicken dish with dill for example, a Korean-style beef dish and an orangey roast pork dish that is delicious. And lots more. A favourite book as you can tell. Look out for it in the op shops.

Alas I won't be making this particular dish though. David hates prawns.


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