There's an apocryphal story in the opera world about a tenor, maybe in Milan, maybe in Venice, maybe in Naples, who sang an aria from I Pagliacci. When he finished, the audience cheered for an encore. And each time he finished, they'd cheer for it again. After he'd sung it many, many times, he begged the audience to let him stop—his vocal cords were fried. Then a voice came from the crowd: Sing it again until you get it right.
I felt like that tenor while trying to nail down this shrimp scampi recipe. I kept thinking I had it figured out, and then it would turn out all wrong, and a chorus would whisper in my head:
Do it again.
Still not there.
Do it again.
Not good enough.
Do it again until you get it right.
Really, it's a good, if slightly masochistic, mantra to live by.
The most frustrating thing was that I hadn't expected such a simple recipe to throw me like this one did. Sautéed shrimp in a garlicky butter sauce; what could be easier? It's the kind of dish that, if I hadn't been trying to codify it into a formal recipe, I'd have just eyeballed the whole way.* In some ways, I think it was the act of trying to pin down exact quantities that was getting me into trouble.
Actually, when I'm not developing recipes, pretty much every dish is a dish that I eyeball.
See, to save time and money when testing, I'll usually start a recipe like this with mini batches, and once I have it more or less where I want it, I scale it up to the full volume, test it a final time, and call it a day. But some recipes don't scale well, and this is one of them. When I switched from batches made with a half pound of shrimp to batches using a full pound, I doubled all the other ingredients as well—big mistake!
The sauce that I had perfected on a small scale—smooth, balanced, and thick enough to coat each shrimp in a creamy, emulsified sheen—became a winey, thin, too-garlicky soup when I doubled it. Do it again until you get it right.
The problem, I realized, had to do with the rate of reduction and evaporation when making the pan sauce. Doubling the white wine that I was using to deglaze the pan seemed to at least quadruple the time it took to reduce it, and no matter how much I cooked it down, the final sauce was too thin and tart.
As Kenji has explained, when you reduce a liquid slowly, which is what was happening with my larger quantity of wine, more of its flavor stays in the food (instead of leaping out into the air along with all that steam). The more rapidly you reduce a liquid, the more that flavor and aroma jumps out of the pot and out of the food.
In many cases, such as with a stock that you're making for a flavorful sauce, you want to reduce it slowly to keep those flavors in. But in the case of this scampi recipe, too-slow reduction was keeping too much of a strong winey flavor in, throwing the sauce out of balance. I needed to drive off some of those stronger flavors.
Since I had already maxed out my heat source at its highest setting, the easiest way to rapidly boil and reduce the wine was to use less of it in the pan. But cutting back the wine too much buried its flavor under the increased quantities of butter, oil, and garlic that were also going into the sauce. That's when I remembered an earlier batch I had made at home over the weekend.
I had grabbed a bottle of wine from my cupboard, opened it, and realized it was oxidized. I used it anyway and actually kind of liked the flavor of the sauce even more. Knowing that little accident with my bad wine at home led to a better, more flavorful sauce, I then thought about ways to borrow that idea as a solution to my scaling problem.
The answer was to re-create the oxidized-wine effect by switching to dry vermouth, a more flavorful fortified wine with pleasant aromatic and oxidized flavors.**
** Not to be confused with the bad oxidized flavors of vermouth that has been left sitting for too long. Read about the best way to store vermouth here.
By using vermouth, I could deglaze the pan with less of it, reduce it more quickly, yet still taste it in the final sauce. Finally, I got it right.
Here's a look at how to make the recipe, with some of my other discoveries along the way.
Start With the Shrimp
When I was a kid, growing up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, my sister and I each had our favorite dishes at the local Italian-American restaurants. Hers was fettuccine Alfredo, and she'd beg to go to Marco Polo's on Court Street to eat it. My dish of choice was often shrimp scampi, and I remember getting monstrously large plates of it at places like Two Toms: fat shrimp in a lake of garlic butter.
One of my memories of the shrimp was that they were cooked with intense enough heat to caramelize them just slightly, bringing out roasty shellfish flavors. The problem, of course, is that hitting seafood like shrimp with intense heat makes them seize up and get tough.
Here, I wanted that roasted flavor, but without the toughness. Kenji had already explored a similar dish, the Spanish tapas staple of shrimp in garlic oil, so I started by looking at some of the tricks he used there.
One thing Kenji did was to cook the shrimp shells in the olive oil to infuse it with their flavor, then strain it and use that shrimp oil in the final dish. I tried it here, but it didn't have the same effect in the scampi: The Spanish shrimp are in oil and oil alone, but scampi is made with an oil-and-butter sauce, and the butter dilutes those shrimp-oil nuances.
I could have gone really crazy and made a shrimp butter and a shrimp oil, but I think that shrimp scampi, at its heart, needs to be quick and easy, so making shrimp butter seemed too fussy and antithetical to the spirit of the dish. I needed to find the flavor without overcomplicating things.
I also tried sautéing the shrimp in their shells, then removing the shells afterward, but that delayed things too much, since I had to wait until the shrimp were cool enough to handle to pull off the shells.
The last thing I did was to try Kenji's baking soda trick, which he originally borrowed from Chinese recipes. The shrimp are tossed with baking soda and salt, then left to sit for several minutes. The baking soda does something magical to the shrimp, making them come out plumper and more tender when cooked.
That worked perfectly. I was able to cook the shrimp over high heat and get some browning, and yet they were still soft little fatties when they came out of the pan, not tough at all.
Get Your Garlic On
When Kenji made his Spanish garlic shrimp recipe, he worked garlic into it three ways: He marinated the shrimp with garlic that he had minced extremely finely on a Microplane, added a crushed clove to the oil when infusing the shells in it, and then sautéed sliced garlic in the oil right before serving.
In the case of scampi, the little bits of garlic in the sauce are as important to me as the shrimp themselves. Minced garlic, because of all of its surface area, adds tons of flavor all on its own, so I decided to rely on that for my garlic punch.
At first, I grated it on a Microplane for ease. It's a trick I love and have used countless times in many different recipes. It works beautifully in Kenji's shrimp dish, so I figured it'd be fine here. But when I made my first batch of scampi and dropped the Microplaned garlic into the hot oil, my eyes started to wince and water.
Man, this garlic is burning my eyes like raw onions, I whined.
Then, when I deglazed the pan with wine, a pungent odor wafted up and socked me in my olfactory nerves. What the heck is that smell, is the wine corked? I smelled the bottle of wine; it was fine. And that's when I realized it was the garlic.
As it turned out, sautéing a large amount of Microplaned garlic in oil is not always a great idea. The Microplane does too good a job of mincing the garlic into a purée, breaking open more of the garlic cells and releasing more of their fluid contents. In this case, it proved to be too much—once all that garlic juice hit the hot oil, it produced noxious, mustard-gas-like fumes that burned and stank.
After that, I switched to hand-mincing the garlic, and, just like that, the problem was gone.
Draining Lake Butter
Sometimes a butter lake is a beautiful thing. Sometimes it's a stomachache. One of the main things I wanted to fix with this recipe was the oil slick that too often comes on a plate of scampi. The solution was easy: I wanted to approach this pan sauce with a slightly more refined touch by emulsifying the butter into it, for a smooth, creamy texture that wasn't greasy.
I played with the idea of dusting the shrimp with cornstarch first, thinking it might help them brown more and then act as a binder for the sauce. It worked really well, but my colleagues all had the same reaction: They said it tasted like shrimp scampi in the style of Chinese lobster sauce. Okay, we don't want that. Scratch the cornstarch.
I ended up just sticking with classic butter sauce technique, vigorously swirling and stirring it into the reduced vermouth until it emulsified on its own. When you do it this way, with no starches or other emulsifiers to aid you, it may sometimes break. That's okay: Just add a splash of water and stir vigorously to bring it back together.
Once I had an opaque, creamy butter sauce, I added a splash of lemon juice for a bright, fresh, tart flavor to balance out all the butter and oil. Then I added the shrimp back to the pan, and hit them with some lemon zest and fresh herbs.
At first, I was just using minced parsley, which is classic. But I thought the herbs should be doing a little more, flavor-wise, than what the parsley alone was accomplishing, so I did something that might make an Italian unleash a torrent of only the best curses:*** I reached for a trick from the French toolbox and minced up some fines herbes, a flavorful, aromatic mix that usually includes parsley, tarragon, chives, and chervil. I couldn't find the chervil, so I just left it out.
*** Porca puttana...madonna maiala...ma che cazzo fai?!?!?!?
Frankly, now that I'm thinking of it, a little fresh marjoram in the mix would be pretty bitchin' as well—it'd deliver a more refined, floral version of oregano flavor, which recalls the whole Italian-American thing. I'm going to do that next time I make this.
You can serve this shrimp scampi as is, or toss it with pasta and a little of the pasta-cooking water for a more robust meal. It works either way. Just be careful about scaling it...it may throw things really out of whack.
As one parting note, I can't think about such a garlicky Italian-American seafood dish and not think of Pino Daniele's great song "Saglie saglie." It's in the Neapolitan language, and it's about the poor street vendors in Naples who'd sell (or, sadly, not sell) big baskets of garlic. He recorded it at least twice, but I think he got it right both times.