Shrimp and spaghetti is a dinner party staple in my southern kitchen, especially around this time of year. The sauce in my spin of this comfort classic has a freshness that is welcome after the heavier comfort foods of winter, to which the shrimp provides the perfect complement.
I wasn’t ever given a hand-written recipe for shrimp and spaghetti. I was told how to make it in great detail, and I later wrote down what I remembered. While I had a better memory back then and probably penned the instructions pretty well, I wasn’t given exact amounts for any of the ingredients.
As the years went by, I developed a sense of how much of this and how much of that goes into this dish. The truth, however, is that my recipe can handle some improvisations. As long as stick to the basic bones, you can use what you have on hand in terms of tomatoes and tomato sauce.
This recipe for shrimp and spaghetti brings me back to the point in my life when I began branching out and trying new cuisines like Indian and Thai food and sushi. Up to that point, I basically ate what I grew up eating.
The excitement of learning how to cook things that I didn’t grow up eating made me more confident in the kitchen, and I wanted to share my newfound passion with everyone. Before long, Sunday brunches and casual dinner parties for family and friends had become a thing at my house. In fact, I served this shrimp and spaghetti when I hosted my first get-together, complete with Chianti in those little basket-wrapped bottles.
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I’m not saying that I ever thought of shrimp as exotic or even as something different from the norm. I’m from the South, so I grew up having shrimp and seafood at home. But we didn’t have shrimp at my house like they have shrimp down on the Bayou. Don’t get me wrong: My mom rocked a shrimp boil, but she never would have dreamed of putting shrimp in spaghetti.
Tomatoes and tomato sauce
I was told to use 2 cans of tomato sauce and 1 can of tomatoes. There are so many tomato sauces to choose from in today’s grocery stores — just reach for what you like. In my latest batch of shrimp and spaghetti, I added a fancy jar of pizza sauce — it was delicious. I also had a couple of gorgeous hot-house-grown tomatoes on hand, so I included them, as well. The most important thing is to stick to the same 2:1 ratio of sauce to tomatoes.
Use small to medium, wild-caught shrimp that are peeled and deveined. The only dance you have to master for this recipe is when to add your spaghetti and shrimp to the sauce.
It varies so much from person to person as to when the shrimp are perfectly cooked. The truth is the shrimp will continue to cook a bit even after you remove this dish from the heat. Don’t be scared. Simply taste the shrimp once you think they’re done and cut the heat as soon as you’re satisfied.
Another thing I learned from my time in Bayou La Batre is to soak your peeled and deveined shrimp in milk while you’re chopping and preparing everything for this dish (or any shrimp dish, for that matter). Allow them to soak for about an hour, if possible. The milk takes any “funky” taste out of the shrimp.
Feel free to use whatever type of spaghetti you prefer, whether that means traditional or gluten- or grain-free. But do reach for spaghetti rather than a thicker linguine or a thinner angel hair pasta. You want the noodles to soak up the flavor of the sauce and still hold up.
Cook your spaghetti just to the point of al dente because the pasta will cook a bit more once you add it to the sauce. Lastly, only briefly rinse your cooked noodles. You don’t want them to cool the sauce too much when combined.
As with many shrimp dishes, celery is important in this recipe. Though it’s thoroughly cooked without any discernible crunch, it adds a bright, additional layer of flavor to an otherwise more typical red sauce.
Use a sharp knife when you chop the celery to prevent “strings.” With a bit of care, you can prevent this from happening.
Most of the time, I have fresh herbs in my kitchen. I reach for those, but it’s not a big deal if you use dried ones. I generally use more than what is called for (as I do with the garlic). Use however much you desire. (Remember: You can always add more, but you can’t subtract.)
Recipe: Gulf Coast Shrimp and Spaghetti
- 1 large bell pepper (any color), seeded and chopped
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 3 stalks celery, chopped
- 1-4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
- 2 cans tomato sauce
- 1 can tomatoes
- 1-2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 pounds small to medium wild-caught shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 pound spaghetti
- Fresh basil
- Fresh parsley
- Olive oil (or oil of choice) to sauté onions, peppers and celery
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Optional: parmesan and red pepper flakes
Sauté the onions in 1-2 tablespoons of oil over low heat until very soft and mostly translucent. Add the bell pepper and celery and continue cooking until they’re soft and the onions are a bit browned.
Add the cans of tomato sauce and tomatoes, 1 teaspoon of sugar, the chopped garlic and some of the herbs.
Simmer very low for 30 minutes.*
*If you also cook on a gas stove, you may need to turn off the fire a few minutes here and there to prevent scorching your sauce as it simmers. (It’s ideal to let your sauce cook long and slow so the flavors have time to come together.)
Adjust the seasonings (herbs and sugar), plus salt and pepper to taste.
While the sauce is simmering, cook the spaghetti (according to the directions on the package), rinse briefly and set aside.
In a colander, rinse the shrimp and set aside.
Add the spaghetti and shrimp to the sauce. Cook very low until the shrimp are done.
To serve, add a hefty sprinkling of parmesan, some red pepper flakes for heat and a drizzle of the best olive oil you have.
Start with one teaspoon of sugar. If your sauce is too acidic/sour, add a little bit more. I’ve never had to add more than 2 heaping teaspoons of sugar, but adjust to taste as needed.
The rule of thumb for serving shrimp is 1/2 pound per person, but said rule really doesn’t apply here. This is a hearty dish — you can easily serve 6 people with 2 pounds of shrimp.
If you’re using fresh herbs, save some to add after serving.
More recipes from Bibi’s Southern kitchen to try:
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