A personal creation of La Sponda’s executive chef Gennaro Russo, this summery starter marries the herbaceous tang of wild asparagus and the mild dairy flavour of buffalo-milk ricotta with the bittersweet flesh of Sicilian red shrimps, or gamberoni. It’s a simple yet resonant combination, perfect for an elegant al fresco lunch.
A word about nomenclature: the Italian term gamberone (‘big shrimp’) or gambero rosso is most commonly applied to the species Aristaeomorpha foliacea, a deep-water shrimp sometimes referred to in English as the red royal prawn. The best in Italy are generally considered to come from Mazara del Vallo in Sicily, whose fishing fleet specialises in this hard-to-fish crustacean (most often caught in the waters between Turkey and Cyprus). However, any large species of shrimp (or ‘king prawn’ in British English) would work here, including the Dublin Bay prawn or langoustine – the term most generally applied in culinary circles to the species Nephrops norvegicus.
1kg wild asparagus (if cultivated, they should be green garden asparagus, not the blanched white variety)
12 Sicilian red shrimps (gamberoni or gamberi rossi)
180ml (3/4 cup) good olive oil
150ml still mineral water
400g ricotta (the best for this recipe is smooth ricotta di bufala)
a few celery leaves
Wash the asparagus well in running water. Keep aside around 200g (a couple per person) for the garnish. Dry the rest and slice into 2cm sections, discarding the tougher parts near the base. Heat a saucepan, pour in a third of the oil (around a quarter cup or 4 tablespoons, 60ml) and sauté the asparagus on a medium flame, adding salt and pepper to taste. Once they have browned a little, add the mineral water to cover (better than tap water at preserving the fresh green colour of vegetables) and cook until the asparagus is soft. Leave to cool, then purée in a blender with another 4 tablespoons (60ml) of oil and more mineral water as required to achieve a smooth, pourable but still thick liquid consistency. Set aside the purée until needed.
Remove the head, tail, outer shell and innards from the shrimps. Heat a saucepan and pour in the rest of the oil (60ml). Sauté the peeled shrimps in this until they are lightly browned on both sides.
Break up the ricotta into large chunks, enough for a single serving. Take the raw asparagus you had set aside earlier and cut the bases off to leave tender green spears of around 8cm. Finely slice these lengthwise, either with a sharp knife or using a mandoline. Pour or spoon the asparagus purée into four soup bowls, add the four chunks of ricotta (sprinkled with black pepper to taste) and, separately (not on top of the ricotta), three of the cooked shrimps, then garnish with the asparagus slices and the celery leaves. Finish off with a thin drizzle of olive oil.
Photos © Roberto Salomone