shrimp scampi defining life's purpose
huge if true!
Welcome to A Newsletter #34, the age I told someone I was the other day (on accident). If you’ve found your way over by some miracle but are not yet subscribed, here, let me help you with that:
Last year, I began working with a therapist that challenged me to “define my purpose.” Not intending to be overly existential, he’d ask me in more of a practical and logistical “So, why are you here?” kind of way. I of course have not answered this question, but I think about it nearly every single day and that alone has been helpful in me deciding what it might be.
Another question that’s come up tangentially has been “what is the thing you can do that nobody else can do?” In many ways, I find this question to be more valuable than the first. Or perhaps once I’ve answered the second, I’ve clearly answered the first. Is this sounding very “Wallace Shawn in that one scene of Princess Bride” to anyone else? Anyway, recently, I’ve become fed up with my obsession with needing to know the answer to both questions. The repeated asking encouraged a self-serious behavior that made me deeply uncomfortable (probably the opposite of my therapist’s intention, although he does encourage sitting with discomfort!).
I realize this story is going to sound trite, but I’m going to tell it anyway. The other day I was going through some emails and read one from a woman asking if I would consider making a recipe for Shrimp Scampi, a dish I had admittedly not considered making a recipe for. I don’t know if I read the email on a good day or bad day, but something about the two words together (shrimp + scampi, which yes, technically translates to shrimp shrimp) really just screamed YOU SHOULD DO THIS, IT WOULD BE A REALLY GOOD TIME, HOW FUN DOES THAT SOUND?
After years of answering only to my own assignments, receiving one from another person was honestly thrilling. As a relatively bossy person who likes to do things their own way on their own terms, you wouldn’t guess that I’m often screaming from the inside: “PLEASE SOMEONE TELL ME WHAT TO DO”, and at that moment, someone had. Someone defining my purpose for even a few hours? What a blessing.
I sort of surprised myself with what a good time I had making and eating this shrimp scampi. Sure, I’d eaten shrimp scampi. I’d been to Olive Garden. I’d even eaten room temp shrimp scampi over rice pilaf on an airplane (brag!). But this shrimp scampi felt different. This felt FUN? I know, my whole job is to make you think that everything in the kitchen is fun. Searing chicken thighs? WHAT A BLAST. Slicing 6–8 shallots? I could pass out from what a good time that is. And most of the time, I believe it! I do. Cooking is fun. But rarely is anything we do in the kitchen just for fun. This time, it was.
I’m guessing it was the jumbo shells I used instead of long strands of skinny pasta (shrimp in their shells except the shells are pasta and you eat them haha do you get it). Using those big dumb pieces of pasta (a shape I have historically ignored except to stuff with cheese and cover with herbs), felt silly and campy in a Met Gala 2019 kind of way and you know what: I loved it. It was fun, I was having fun, me and my big dumb shells were having fun.
This brings me back to purpose. I’m not pressed to define it right this second, which is great because I can’t. But I do think that this week at least, my purpose can be to encourage you all to have more fun. Generally, sure, but more specifically, with a bowl of shrimp and those big goofy pieces of pasta. Here’s how.
all photos caught on film by Michael Grant, a photographer I’ve admired for a while and felt so lucky to work with. You can check out more of his work here.
1. Heat butter and olive oil in a large skillet or wide, shallow pot. If the butter is in a container and you’re using a spoon, be sure to lick your finger afterward because butter tastes very good, even all on its own.
2. Add onion and garlic and watch the bits swim in the fat as everything softens and browns. This isn’t the fun part yet, but it will smell very very good, and I guess that’s fun in its own way.
3. Add your gorgeous shrimp, laying them down one at a time like you’re putting them in for a nap. Whisper “goodnight sweet little shrimpies.” Add your wine and pour yourself some, too (fun). Season your sauce (there is so much sauce!) with fish sauce until it tastes savory and salty but not fishy, become even more excited to eat the sauce.
4. Introduce the shells to the shrimp, cross your fingers that everyone gets along. Add herbs, squeeze of lemon, maybe something spicy. Don’t rush things, let them all get to know each other first. Make yourself a bowl.
5. Have the most fun.
To me, Shrimp Scampi is decidedly about the shrimp, and less so about pasta (unless it’s these shells, then it’s absolutely about the pasta). The important thing here is that you have a lot of saucy, glossy businesses all over whatever you’re serving it on (pasta, rice, grains, wilted greens) or sopping it up with (crunchy olive oil toast). My one piece of non-negotiable wisdom is to season the shrimp with plenty of salt and pepper before adding it to the skillet (I once did not do this, and it really ruined things for me/the shrimp).
As for the shrimp, any sized shrimp would work well here. I always prefer a large or jumbo wild shrimp (fresh or frozen), especially if doing a larger pasta shape as I did here. Head-on prawns would be an incredible choice if you can find them and feel like going the pasta-less route. I’ve done this with small bay shrimp tossed with linguini and 12/10 would recommend that, too. All (as-responsibly-sourced-as-possible) shrimp are welcome!
10 ounces pasta, like shells, rigatoni, linguini, truly whatever shape you like (optional)
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined if using pasta, shell-on, head-on preferred if not
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small or 1/2 large red onion, finely chopped
8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¾ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes or ½ thinly sliced jalapeno, serrano, habanero, etc (optional, only if you want it spicy)
½ cup dry white wine
¾ cup parsley, finely chopped
¼ cup finely chopped chives
1 lemon, halved
1. If serving with pasta, cook pasta in a large pot of salted water until al dente. Drain, toss with a healthy drizzle of olive oil and toss so it doesn’t stick together; set aside. Usually, I’d have you do this after your pasta ingredients are cooked, but everything happens so fast I want the pasta to be ready.
2. Season shrimp with salt and pepper; set aside (do not skip this step).
3. Heat butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium–high heat until butter is melted and foamy, about 2 minutes. Add the onion and sliced garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally until the onion has softened and starting to brown on the edges and the garlic is completely softened, 4–6 minutes. If you wanted a spicy shrimp scampi, this is when I’d add the crushed red pepper flakes or fresh, sliced pepper.
4. Add shrimp and toss in the hot fat until the shrimp is bright pink on the outside and starting to curl up (cute!), about a minute or so. Add white wine and fish sauce (if using), season again with salt and pepper and let it simmer around the shrimp, gently steaming and cooking them all the way through as the liquid reduces to create a thing that could only be described as “a very good sauce.”
5. If serving with pasta, toss the shrimp and all it’s fantastic sauce with the parsley, chives and cooked pasta (do this in a bowl, do this in the skillet, wherever you have space). Toss, toss, toss! The whole thing should be saucy and glossy: two words that always belong together.
6. Squeeze lemon over everything before serving, scatter more herbs if you like.
Take a long walk. Pose with every flowering tree, even better if the flowers match your mask. Remember you’re vaccinated! Take off the mask (because you’re outside)! Take pictures of all the tulips because you can tell they’ll die soon. Remember how nice the air feels this week because in about three weeks, it’ll be too hot and everyone on Twitter will be complaining. Read Goodbye, Again and laugh and cry and laugh and cry. Go to a basketball game and see DETECTIVE OLIVA BENSON IN THE FLESH. Decide to never leave the house again because nothing that good will ever happen to you. Read this piece by Foster Kamer for Gossamer vol. 4 and immediately book a reservation at a restaurant (it was the piece that made us become friends and also earned him a spot in The Best American Food Writing anthology this year. Both cool rewards IMO!).
Lastly, as a lot of us emerge from the pandemic and return to what we consider somewhat regularly scheduled programming, a lot of countries are still struggling, still on lockdown, still very much in a pandemic. Consider a donation to an organization providing relief in India for their ongoing Covid crisis. As my friend Chloe so succinctly put it, “A LOT (realistically all) of us have benefitted and perhaps profited off of India’s land, culture, or people in some way. Time to show up.”