Dee writes: My husband and I used to a go to an Italian place in New York for the shrimp scampi. I make it myself every now and then, but I think it could be better. It’s my mother in-law’s recipe: shrimp, garlic, butter, and a whole lot of white wine.
Tony’s take: Dee, thanks, for writing. But first things: I do not (repeat: DO NOT!!) want to mess with your mother-in-law (or anyone else’s mother-in-law for that matter). I’m drawn to this question – I’ve spent entire years of my life thinking about shrimp – but I’m always nervous about familial blowback. So look out for me…
The dish: Here’s the thing: your mother-in-law probably has it right anyway. Shrimp scampi is one of those dishes that’s more technique than recipe. If you nail the basic steps in the process – brown, but don’t overcook the shrimp, gently toast the garlic, and make sure to add a little acidity to taste at the end – the recipe itself shouldn’t matter all that much anyway. So, below, I highlight each of the difference-making tricks (in addition to the basic recipe, of course). And to make sure I knew what I was talking about, I ran through the recipe myself. Given it’s almost April, I added in a couple of spring touches (feel free to ignore them as you like). My version starts traditional: brown the shrimp and then set aside for the garlic. Gently toast thin slices so the garlic infuses its flavor without getting overly aggressive. Then you hit a culinary fork: I suggest adding in some asparagus, strips of lemon zest, and crushed red pepper flakes (but you could just skip ahead to the wine and butter). Saute the asparagus until lightly browned, then deglaze the plan with a splash of white wine. Add the shrimp back to the pan with a couple pats of butter, toss well, and finish with some fresh herbs. Serve with pasta or rice or whatever.
1. Prep the shrimp (Tip: make sure they’re dry): Peel 1 lb. shrimp (preferably 16-20 count), devein them, and rinse well under cold running water. Pat dry with paper towel: this last step is important as the shrimp won’t properly brown if they’re still damp. Sprinkle the shrimp with 1/4 tsp. kosher salt and 1/2 tsp. black pepper.
2. Prep the veg (Tip: Slice thinly so it cooks quickly): Thinly slice 3 garlic cloves. Using a peeler, gently shave the zest of 1 lemon into strips from the lemon, taking care not to get any of the bitter white pith. Reserve the lemon to juice later. Trim and discard the ends of 8 oz. asparagus and then cut in 2-inch pieces on the diagonal.
3. Brown the shrimp (Tip: Get the pan good and hot): Heat a heavy based 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat for 1 1/2 min. (a droplet of water should instantly evaporate when it hits the pan’s surface). Add 2 Tbs. olive oil and once it’s shimmering hot, add the shrimp in a single layer. Cook without touching until the shrimp browns nicely, about 2 minutes. Flip and brown the other side (but the shrimp should still be a little undercooked), about 1 1/2 min. Transfer to a large plate.
4. Cook the veg (Tip: Deglaze with a little wine): Reduce the heat to medium, add 2 Tbs. olive oil and the garlic and cook, tossing, until the garlic starts to sizzle steadily, about 30 seconds. Add the asparagus, lemon zest, and 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes, sprinkle with 1/2 tsp. kosher salt and cook, tossing often, until the garlic is golden brown and the asparagus browns in places, 2 to 3 minutes. Add 1/3 cup white wine and cook, stirring, until it completely cooks off, about 1 minute.
5. Toss and cook through (Tip: Taste for acidity): Stir in the shrimp and cook, tossing, until the shrimp is firm to the touch and the asparagus is crisp-tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in 2 Tbs. unsalted butter (cut into pieces so it melts more quickly), 1 Tbs. lemon juice, and any fresh herbs you have (parsley is traditional; I also like thyme). Then add salt, pepper, and more lemon juice to taste. Serve immediately.