JULIAN BRUNT is a writer whose roots run more than three hundred years deep in Southern soil. He is deeply concerned with culinary and cultural traditions and thinks no man worth his salt cannot hold forth in story and by cook stove. He writes the column Notes from the Field: Mississippi Gulf Coast for this magazine.
Today I put my windproof jacket and cotton scarf away in the back of the closet, so sure am I that spring has arrived. A Gulf Coast spring is a lullaby, a narcotic allusion that the blissful weather, gentle breezes and sparkling blue sky will last forever. In my heart I know it will not, but I cannot stop the daydream and I close my eyes and breathe deeply of the air that a nearby wisteria just exhaled. Summer will pounce soon enough.
But spring is more than a pleasant illusion on the Gulf Coast. To those of us with culinary tendencies it’s a promise of good things to come. Soon the farmers markets, at least the certified ones who require the seller to be the maker or grower of what they hawk, will be loaded with asparagus, cabbage, leeks, basil, strawberries and blueberries.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying I am already tired of the collard greens and kale, winter’s fair at the farmers market, but given a few more weeks of ham hocks and greens and I just might get there. Spring is a promise, a renewal and I am more than ready for the bounty of Southern gardens to hit the markets.
My friend Pat who owns an organic farm, P J Nursery just above Saucier (so-shay the locals pronounce it), says she and her husband have already begun planting and my mouth waters at the prospect of what she will be selling off the tail gate of her pickup truck soon. But it’s the tomatoes that stir my soul. Slice a fresh tomato still warm from the sun, pair it with a thick hunk of Taleggio, the second most important cheese of Italy, gently lay a single basil leaf on top and kiss it with just a few drops of a good balsamic vinegar and ….. no, wait! Take a moment, look at it, admire the colors, smell it; now pick it up with your hands, don’t bother with a fork, and take it in all at once. Let the juice run down your chin; chew slowly, slowly, slowly. Now look me in the eye and say you don’t love springtime in the South.
Another spring time ritual on the Gulf Coast is the advent of the brown shrimp season. It may be a month or two away but I can think of little else that makes me want to invite friends over and run to the kitchen. I live just blocks from the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor and its fleet of shrimp boats. These boats are smaller, some are still made of wood, what we call luggers, and they go out at night and return in the morning with the freshest catch possible. Fresh brown shrimp are the perfect pairing for Pats organic red ripe tomatoes. I’ve been making this combination for years and it’s great. It’s not a ragu, one of those long cooked winter time recipes – this one is done in minutes and celebrates the good fresh thing that make spring such a marvel. Please give it a try.
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1 pound of large peeled shrimp
4-5 red ripe tomatoes
1 pound linguini
½ cup chopped onions
3-4 cloves chopped garlic
¼ cup white wine
Small bunch cilantro
Fresh ground black pepper and salt to taste
A pinch of red pepper flakes
Valentina hot sauce
Fresh local butter
Marinate the shrimp in a little Valentina hot sauce and set aside. Cook the pasta according to the package directions, set aside but keep warm. Sauté the onions in a little olive oil for 5-6 minutes, add the garlic and cook for 3 more minutes. In a separate pan melt just enough butter over high heat and just before it turns into beurre noisette, add the shrimp, cooking very quickly in small batches. When the shrimp are all done, deglaze the pan with the wine, toss all the ingredients together, taste and season as necessary. Garnish with cilantro and, if you’re not Italian, dust the top with Parmigiano-Reggiano.