Shrimp Scampi, a Classic Open to Interpretation – The New York Times

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A Good Appetite

SHRIMP scampi is a dish so entrenched in the Italian-American vernacular that until the day I decided to make it, I did not realize that I didn’t know what it was.
I got the idea to make scampi for dinner while researching recipes circa 1970 for a project. Flipping through an old-school Italian cookbook complete with red-checkered tablecloth cover, I noticed a photo of fat, pink, head-on shrimp displayed on a platter adorned with green grapes and a pear. Fried scampi, the title read. The recipe called for only three ingredients: jumbo prawns, olive oil and garlic. Huh, I thought as I took in the strangeness of pre-Martha Stewart food styling, doesn’t shrimp scampi always have butter, and isn’t it served over pasta?
I asked a colleague what she thought shrimp scampi was, and she quickly said “garlic shrimp with some kind of breading.” Another friend posited shrimp in garlicky tomato sauce.
If shrimp scampi is such a classic staple of Italian restaurants, why didn’t any of us know what it was?
Thanks to a quick Internet search that I then confirmed in Lidia Bastianich’s authoritative book, “Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen” (Knopf, 2001), I learned that shrimp scampi is one of those creations in which immigrant cooks adapted Italian techniques to American ingredients.
Scampi are in fact tiny, lobster-like crustaceans with pale pink shells (also called langoustines). One traditional way of preparing them in Italy, Ms. Bastianich writes, is to sauté them with olive oil, garlic, onion and white wine. Italian cooks in the United States swapped shrimp for scampi, but kept both names. Thus the dish was born, along with inevitable variations like adding tomatoes, breadcrumbs, or, as Ms. Bastianich does, tarragon.
As I saw it, this meant I was free to interpret shrimp scampi pretty much any way I wanted. And I wanted my scampi to be something buttery and rich, with pan drippings intense enough to act as a sauce for pasta, or to make a tasty bread sop reminiscent of the other dish I associate with melted butter and garlic: escargots à la bourguignonne. If I could come up with a scampi sauce as addictive as snail butter, I’d be one very happy cook.
So I started with shrimp sautéed in butter, garlic and parsley. Taking Ms. Bastianich’s cue, I decided to add white wine, just a little bit of something really good that I could also drink with dinner. The acidity would help balance out the richness and lighten the sauce. Upon reflection, I also decided that since most of the recipes I came across used olive oil, maybe I should include that too, for more complexity.
Gathering my ingredients, I started to cook. I melted the butter with the olive oil and added the garlic, which released its heady scent as soon as it hit the hot fat. It smelled comforting and familiar, and reminded me of the other ingredient I often add to a pan of garlicky olive oil — crushed red pepper flakes. On a whim, I threw some in with the wine, then tossed in shrimp that I had shelled but not deveined.
A quick digression. Unless my shrimp are jumbo-size, with perilous, inky stripes running down their backs, I never bother deveining.
I learned this from my mother, who also doesn’t clean out the goop from under flaps of soft-shell crabs. When you’re the cook, you get to do what you like.
You could even leave on the shrimp shells and heads, as that 1970s photograph attests. It will make some pretty greasy work for your guests, but the shrimp will have an especially deep, saline taste.
Either way, once the shrimp are added to the pan, the trick is to cook them just long enough that they turn pink all over, but not until their bodies curl into rounds with the texture of tires. This took about 3 minutes. Meanwhile, I tasted the sauce and decided that more acidity was required. A squeeze of lemon perked everything up without diminishing the essential butteriness.
And there I had it, my version of shrimp scampi, a classic Italian-American dish as interpreted by a Jewish-American cook. What could be more authentic that that?


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