When I last wrote about cooking the imaginary food of my honorary Southern hometown of Biloxi, Miss., I wrote about an Asian-inflected shrimp taco. It was a dish I'd made up, a cultural Frankenstein, but one plausibly of that place — a coming together of the Vietnamese and (new) Mexican immigrant communities.
But as my thoughts turn Southern on the fifth anniversary of the storm that took me there in the first place, they turn now to the shrimpers and processors and chefs and all the utterly decent people I met in the seafood business. Croatians, Cajuns and Vietnamese, they welcomed me into their private clubs and their dinner tables (and the occasional crawfish boil), and I wanted to create a dish that would honor all of them.
On Friday tables all over town, in deference to the local preference for Catholicism, you'll see platters of shrimp spaghetti, essentially pasta with tomato sauce all crustaceaned up. But I thought a bit on this. The Croatians share a border with Italy, and so pasta is not simply borrowed — it's endemic to their own cuisine, too. Cajuns may well make this sauce with their holy trinity of onions, celery and green bell peppers. Basil is always gorgeous with tomatoes, so why not the Thai basil favored by the Vietnamese? (While we're at it, why not a little ginger and fish sauce in the sauce, too? But that's up to you.) And finally, to really honor the shrimpers and their catch, I thought to use the shells to make a shrimp jus to fortify the sauce, and to separately sear the shrimp so that they're perfectly cooked. What comes out is a rich, aromatic sauce that tastes forever like the sea and the land ... and I hope a little like that little town I love.
Biloxi Shrimp Spaghetti
Serves 4 to 6
- 1¼ pounds large shrimp, shells on (and heads, if available), American wild-caught, please
- Vegetable or olive oil, as needed
- Salt, as needed
- Sugar, as needed
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- ½ teaspoon fresh ginger, minced (optional)
- 1 small green bell pepper, chopped
- 1 large celery rib, chopped
- Fish sauce, to taste (optional)
- Pepper, to taste
- 2 pounds fresh tomatoes (or a 28-ounce can), coarsely chopped
- 1 pound spaghetti
- Thai basil leaves, or regular basil, chopped, to taste
- First, get that shrimp stock going. Peel the shrimp, keeping the shells (and heads, if you've got those, too. Yum!). Get a saucepan ripping hot over high heat, and add a dash of oil, just enough to coat the pan. When the oil starts to smoke, add the shells and let them sear, stirring after about 20 seconds. Keep stirring until all the shells are bright pink, seem dry, and are starting to develop some golden brown color around the edges. Crush them a bit with your spoon and add a few (say, 4) of the shrimp themselves, with just enough water to cover. Bring it to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and let simmer for 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, make a quick brine for the shrimp: In about a quart of cold water, mix in enough salt to make it taste like the sea, then enough sugar so that it takes a bit of the edge off the saltiness. (We're not talking about a very precise art here. It's fine.) Add the shrimp with about ¼ of the minced garlic, and let them hang out until it's time to cook them at the end of the recipe, at least 30 minutes.
- Strain the stock after 20 minutes, but keep the liquid simmering, briskly and uncovered, to reduce it. Oh, and while you're at it, set a large pot of water on to boil for the pasta, and remember to salt it until the water actively tastes salty, but not unpleasantly so.
- Now make the sauce. Heat about 2 tablespoons of oil in a wide saucepan over medium-high heat until it's shimmering. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until they're translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining garlic (and ginger, if using), and cook until it's fragrant; then add the green pepper and celery. Season with a pinch of salt (or a dash of fish sauce) and pepper. Sweat the vegetables until the peppers have softened and the celery has given up some of its snap. Add the tomatoes and another pinch of salt or fish sauce and pepper. Bring to a boil and turn down to a simmer. Depending on the type and juiciness of your tomatoes, the cooking time can vary pretty widely, but you're looking for the thickness of tomato sauce you normally like with pasta. You know how that goes.
- Meanwhile, taste that shrimp stock. Don't worry if it doesn't taste fantastic on its own — it will probably be one-dimensional — but you do want the flavor to be pretty noticeable. The idea is to concentrate it through reduction, and then use it as an essence to give a lovely background note to the tomato sauce. Once it's reduced to a strong, flavorful concentration, add some, to taste, to the tomato sauce.
- Once you've introduced the stock and the sauce, let the two cook, flirt, and eventually marry for 10 to 15 minutes (and to re-thicken the sauce). Cook the spaghetti when you think the sauce is about 10 minutes away from being just as you want it.
- Drain the shrimp from the brine, trying to get as much of the garlic off as possible, and pat them dry with paper towel. Heat a large sauté pan over high heat, and add just enough oil to get a rich sheen all over the bottom. When the oil is shimmering, sear the shrimp in one layer, until they're just starting to get golden, about 2 or 3 minutes. Flip them, searing the other side until just cooked through, about another minute or 2. (Do this in two batches if your pan can't fit all the shrimp at once.) Splash the pan with more of the stock or water to pick up any browned bits, and deposit it into the sauce.
- Taste the sauce and correct the seasoning with salt, pepper and/or fish sauce. Stir in the basil, toss with drained spaghetti, and serve with shrimp on top. Or, roughly chop the shrimp and toss in with the pasta. Enjoy, and say hello to my friends in Mississippi.