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Published May 10, 2009, 12:00 AM

The early bird gets the herbs

Last year, as the month of May was nearing its end, I went to the local nurseries to shop for herbs to plant in my garden.

By: Sue Doeden, DL-Online

Last year, as the month of May was nearing its end, I went to the local nurseries to shop for herbs to plant in my garden.

Now I don’t want to mislead you. I don’t have a vegetable garden. If you’ve been reading my column for a while, you know I admit that my thumbs are not green. When I lived in Fargo, I blamed my inability to nurture vegetable plants on the heavy dark soil. When I moved to northern Minnesota, I was sure the infertile sandy soil was the culprit.

But no. It’s me. Any plant that produces vegetables suffers “failure to thrive” when left to my care.

When I use the word garden, I’m referring to a small sunny space that runs along the front entry of my house. Living under the shade of pines and white birch trees, it’s the only sunny space in my yard. For the last few years, I’ve been gradually filling it with flowering perennials. One summer, I discovered herbs are very happy tucked in among the blooms of color.

After last year’s hunt for herbs, I came home with just a few pots that were the only ones left on the nursery rack. Smarter shoppers had purchased much earlier. I learned my lesson.

This year, on one of the first days the nurseries were open, I became an early bird. I spent hours traveling from one greenhouse to the next, picking up pots of herbs at each. I got all the essentials: flat-leaf Italian parsley, oregano, rosemary, basil, tarragon, lemon thyme, cilantro and sage. My new finds this year are chocolate mint (I’ll have to be careful to not eat all the leaves off the plant), variegated-leaf basil (it will look beautiful in summer salads), and pineapple sage with leaves giving off the perfume of fresh pineapple.

Mission accomplished. My trunk was loaded with fragrant baby plants and a huge, heavy compressed cube of biofungicide-spiked growing medium. No excuses now. I’ll keep you posted about my herbs as the season unfolds and I’ll be incorporating them into many of the recipes that I’ll be sharing with you.

I was happy and hungry after my day of shopping. I would need a quick-to-fix meal. I knew I had some asparagus in my refrigerator, so I stopped to buy some shrimp to have with it. A few years ago when I was in San Francisco, I took a cooking class from television chef and cookbook author Joey Aultman. I remember his advice to avoid shrimp that have already been peeled and deveined — most shrimp are frozen and then thawed, and the shrimp are less protected against the freezer without their shells.

Once home, I peeled and deveined the shrimp, prepared the asparagus for grilling and stirred together a brightly flavored citrus glaze for both.

Zest and juice from an orange and a lemon are enough to burst your taste buds with delight, but add some fresh ginger and the light, healthful glaze becomes absolutely refreshing.

Be sure the grill is hot before placing the skewered shrimp and asparagus spears on the rack. You should hear them sizzle as soon as you place them over the heat.

I like to use bamboo skewers when I’m grilling shrimp. They’re thin and easy to push through the delicate shrimp. Soak bamboo skewers in water for a couple of hours before using them on the grill to help prevent them from burning.

When choosing asparagus for grilling, look for medium-sized, bright green spears rather than very thick ones. I simply snap off the tough ends, rinse them well and they’re ready for the grill.

I chopped the Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus with Citrus Glaze and tossed them into a bowl of fresh baby spinach leaves with grape tomatoes and chopped red pepper, some leftover rice pilaf and a light vinaigrette. Oh, and I just had to slice a few leaves from my new pineapple sage plant to add to the salad. Perfect.

I feel so smug: I’m the early bird that got the herbs and a great-tasting meal, besides.

Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus with Citrus Glaze
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 pound fresh asparagus spears
1 orange
2 lemons
2 tablespoons grated fresh gingerroot
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Grate the zest of the orange and 1 lemon. Place the zest in a small mixing bowl. Add the juices from the zested orange and lemon. Add grated gingerroot and olive oil. Mix with a fork.

Line a baking pan with sides with aluminum foil. A jelly roll pan works well. Thread the shrimp on bamboo skewers that have been soaked in water. Place the shrimp skewers on the prepared pan. Brush both sides of the shrimp with the citrus glaze.

Snap ends off of asparagus and place in a square baking dish. Brush spears with glaze. Shake the dish so asparagus spears roll in the glaze, getting completely coated.

Place asparagus and shrimp skewers on rack directly over the heat on hot grill. Cook, turning once, until asparagus is crisp-tender and shrimp is opaque and still moist in the center, about 2 to 4 minutes per side.

Cut remaining lemon in half and place, cut side down, on grill rack. Leave on grill until streaked with light grill marks, about 3 minutes.

Remove cooked shrimp from skewers and place on serving platter along with asparagus spears. Squeeze juice from one half of grilled lemon over the shrimp and asparagus. Cut remaining half into wedges and serve with shrimp. Yields 4 to 6 servings.

Tips from the cook

--I used 26-30 count shrimp since I was planning to chop them to add to salad. I would use larger shrimp for serving as an entrée with the asparagus and maybe rice pilaf as a side.

--Use a fine grater to get only the colored skin or zest from the citrus fruit, leaving the bitter white pith behind.

--Use a fine grater to prepare fresh gingerroot. For this recipe, no need to peel the gingerroot before grating.

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