There’s really no food that shouts “Spring!” louder than the fresh, tender stalks of asparagus that emerge from the ground in March and April. I know some people who memorize where wild patches of asparagus grow and mark the beginning of warmer weather by harvesting their own shoots. As a Californian and a city dweller, I harvest my asparagus in a nearby supermarket, but the arrival of rows upon rows of bunched stalks is still a sign that the seasons are changing.
While there are many ways you can enjoy your early spring asparagus, one of my favorites is to pair it with shrimp in a simple, weeknight-friendly pasta dish. The asparagus’ sweet, vegetal profile compliments the shrimp’s slightly sweet flavor, and both ingredients have a similar tender but toothsome texture.
Want to hear the best part about this combination? They can be cooked at the same time—in the same pan—with a quick “sauce” of garlic, white wine, and lemon juice inspired by traditional shrimp scampi recipes. The pasta can even finish cooking right in the same pot.
With very little effort, you have a perfect, seasonal meal that’s pretty enough for company and tasty enough that everyone in the family will enjoy it.
How to Choose Your Shrimp
Shrimp are sold in a variety of ways. Typically, at large Asian grocery stores with a really good fish counter you can find everything from live, head-on shrimp swimming in a tank to bags of pre-peeled shrimp in the freezer aisle.
And then there’s the question of size; these delectable crustaceans come in a variety of sizes, from the “super colossal” monsters that are big enough to stuff to “tiny” or “baby” shrimp.
While some purists will tell you that you really need to buy head-on shrimp if you want the best flavor and texture, it’s not at all necessary for this recipe. After all, we’re going to be throwing them in a pan and stirring them around, not carefully preparing them for sushi.
The best shrimp for this recipe are “medium” or “large” pre-shelled, deveined shrimp labeled “21/25” from the freezer aisle. This size shrimp will cook in just the same amount of time as the asparagus so you can cook the two ingredients together making this recipe extremely convenient.
It’s worth noting that these pre-prepped shrimp will still have their tails attached. These pieces are inedible but create the classic shape you see in most shrimp dishes and should stay on, to be removed as you eat.
My only caveat about buying shrimp is that you should always look at where the shrimp was caught—I typically purchase shrimp that was caught in North America or Mexico.
Thaw your shrimp an hour or two before you plan to use them by setting them in a colander, then rinsing them with cold water when they’ve thawed. You can also run some cold water over it to speed up the process.
Prepping Your Asparagus
I trim the ends off my asparagus the way my mom taught me when I was a kid: I hold the cut end in my right hand and the middle of the stalk in my left, and I bend the stalk until it snaps. It’s a common trick, and it works well. If bent gently, asparagus will naturally snap off where the stalk transitions from fibrous to tender. This means, of course, that your spears will all be different lengths, but it doesn’t matter in this recipe, because you’re going to cut them up into 1-inch pieces anyway.
The cook times in this recipe work for medium spears, regardless of whether they’re on the thin side of medium or the thick side. If your asparagus is really, really thin, wait a couple minutes before adding it to the shrimp in the pan. Or, if your stalks are very thick, you can cut them in half lengthwise or cut them at a steep diagonal when you cut them into pieces.
Make the Most of Your Time
This recipe is designed so that you can cook the shrimp, asparagus, and their sauce while the pasta is cooking. The spaghetti (which cooks until it’s just slightly firmer than al dente) is then transferred to the pan to finish cooking right in the sauce, so that it will absorb the flavor of the wine, lemon, and seasonings.
The recipe below calls for a Dutch oven to hold all of the ingredients. But if you have a really big pan, that will work too, and will allow you to spread the shrimp out so that all the pieces can sear at the same time.
Most brands of spaghetti usually take 9 to 12 minutes to cook. This is pretty much exactly the same amount of time you need for the rest of the dish. That said, if the pasta finishes before the other ingredients are done, there’s nothing to worry about. Just dip a liquid measuring cup into the pasta pot to collect a cup of the pasta water (to add to the sauce), then drain the pasta. It will still be very hot when the sauce is ready.
Because this dish includes starch, protein, and vegetables, you can really just serve it on its own, without anything on the side. That said, a light butter lettuce salad goes well with this main.
If you wanted to get fancy and serve this dish to guests at lunch, you could even include other seasonal vegetables on the table with a spring vegetable salad with mint pesto. And if you want a heartier meal, make the easiest ever garlic bread while you wait for your water to boil. A glass of the same white wine you use in the sauce also makes a perfect, no-fuss accompaniment.
Shrimp and Asparagus Pasta
- 12 ounces spaghetti
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 1 pound medium-large uncooked shrimp (21/25 per pound)
- 1 bunch medium-sized asparagus, tough ends removed, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 1 lemon, juiced
- For serving
- 1/4 cup Parmesan, grated
- 4 teaspoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 4 lemon wedges
Boil water for pasta:
Fill a large pot with water and salt it generously. Set it over high heat and bring to a boil.
Cook the pasta:
When the salted water is at a rolling boil, add the pasta. Cook the pasta according to the package instructions, until it is just 1 minute shy of al dente, very nearly cooked but slightly too firm in the center, about 10 minutes.
Drain the pasta in a colander, reserving 1 cup of pasta water to add to the shrimp and asparagus.
Cook the shrimp and asparagus:
While the pasta is cooking, start cooking the other ingredients.
In a Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until it begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the shrimp, asparagus, and garlic. Increase the heat on the stove to high, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the side of the shrimp have just turned pink, about 4 minutes. Season with the salt and pepper.
Reduce the heat to medium and add the white wine and 2 tablespoons of the butter to the pan. Bring the sauce to a simmer and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the lemon juice to the pan. Season with additional salt and pepper, to taste. Continue to cook until the asparagus is just tender and the widest part of the shrimp has turned from translucent to opaque, about 2 minutes.
Finish the dish:
Add the drained pasta to the pan with 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water and the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Cook, stirring occasionally and using tongs to coat the pasta with all of the ingredients in the pan. Stir, until the pasta is tender but still firm in the center, 1 to 2 minutes.
You can add more of the pasta water if the pan gets dry before the pasta is done; you should end up with a slick of sauce coating all of the ingredients. Taste and adjust with more salt and pepper to taste.
Portion the pasta onto four plates. Top each one with Parmesan and parsley. Serve with a lemon wedge on the side.
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