Why It Works
- Briefly marinating shrimp with baking soda gives them an extra snappy texture.
- Sautéing shrimp shells in oil extracts their flavor and infuses it into the sauce.
- Bottled clam juice is a quick and easy way to fortify the sauce with even more shellfish flavor.
If I buy lobsters to eat at home, there's only one way I'm going to eat them: cooked whole and dipped in drawn butter. I will crack the shells at the table, I will chew on the legs, I will scoop out and eat the tomalley (damn anyone who says it's not healthy), and I will pick the body until not a shred of meat is left. What I'll almost never do is make lobster fra diavolo, the Italian-American pasta dish that features a spicy tomato sauce and lobster meat. Not because I don't like it, but because that dish is designed for restaurants.
Only in a restaurant does it make sense to collect enough lobster bodies—which most restaurant-goers have no interest in picking apart—to extract their flavor into a rich stock. That stock is flavorful enough that even when it's used as the base for a spicy tomato sauce, its essence-de-crustacean shines right through. And by capturing all that lobster flavor in the sauce and stretching it with spaghetti or linguine, the restaurant can also save money by using less than one lobster's worth of meat per serving.
While this can be done at home, it doesn't make a ton of sense. That's where shrimp fra diavolo comes in. Shrimp are less expensive and require less work to prep and shell, while still providing a similar shellfish experience. The problem, though, is in the sauce.
See, with most recipes for shrimp fra diavolo you sauté some shrimp, make a quick, spicy tomato sauce, and then toss the two together with pasta. This is definitely quick and easy, but it lacks one of the main appeals of lobster fra diavolo: that shellfish flavor permeating every last bite of sauce and pasta. So that's what my recipe sets out to fix, while still keeping the process easy and quick.
How To Infuse the Sauce With Shrimp Flavor
The main question that needs answering is how to get some shellfish flavor into the tomato sauce. We don't want to simmer the shrimp themselves in it for any length of time, because they'll rapidly overcook. Part of the answer lies in using their shells: not to make a stock, which would be too time consuming for what is ideally a quick-cooking dish, but to infuse their essence into the olive oil that we'll eventually use to make the sauce. Crustacean shells have a lot of flavor and color molecules that are fat soluble, so the technique works well.
I start by shelling the shrimp and searing the shells in olive oil until they've turned a reddish color. Using tongs and a slotted spatula I remove and discard the shells, leaving the oil behind. Next, I add the shrimp, which I've previously mixed with a small amount of baking soda and salt—a trick that helps them retain a firmer, snappy texture (more on that here). I cook the shrimp in the same oil over high heat so that they sear a little on the outside yet remain a hair underdone in the center, then I take them out and set them aside.
Next, I sauté some sliced garlic, dried oregano, and plenty of crushed red pepper flakes*, which will deliver the heat. Once the garlic is just starting to turn golden, I like to add a splash of brandy to the pan. This is not required, so feel free to skip it, but it's a flavor that works really well with shellfish (it's classic in a lobster stock, for instance). Please be careful adding hard liquor to the pan, as it's easy for the whole thing to go up in flames—not a problem if you're prepared to flambé but quite a surprise if you're not.
*It's almost impossible to give an accurate measurement in a recipe for red pepper flakes. I've found far too much variation in the heat intensity of red pepper flakes from one batch and brand to the next to be able to slap a quantified amount on it. You need to taste your red pepper flakes, get a sense of how hot they are, consider how spicy you like your food, and proceed from there. Some chile flakes can deliver enough heat with just a teaspoon's worth, others could require up to a tablespoon or two to deliver enough heat.
I add puréed whole peeled plum tomatoes next. I prefer to either purée them coarsely or crush them by hand, so that they maintain some texture. Why use whole canned tomatoes if we're just going to crush them anyway? Because they're often better quality tomatoes than the ones that end up in pureed and crushed products, and are more likely to not contain calcium chloride, a firming agent that can prevent the tomatoes from breaking down during cooking. You can read more canned tomato buying tips here.
The Secret Ingredient
As a last step, I whip out my secret ingredient: bottled clam juice. A little bit of this is the second half of my solution to getting shellfish flavor into the sauce. The key is to add just enough. We're not looking for a red clam sauce; we want a subtle hint of shellfish that infuses everything.
At this point, finishing the dish is just a matter of cooking the pasta, finishing it in the sauce, and adding the shrimp back in right at the end, just long enough to warm them through and finish any lingering cooking they have to do. A small handful of minced parsley adds a fresh green kick, as does a glug of some good olive oil.
The result is a shrimp-studded pasta infused with a shellfish flavor. You won't even miss the lobsters.
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
3/4 pound large shrimp (340g), shelled and deveined, shells reserved
Large pinch baking soda
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (90ml), divided
4 medium cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 to 2 teaspoons red chile flakes (see notes)
2 tablespoons (30ml) brandy (optional)
1 (28-ounce; 795g) can whole peeled tomatoes and their juices, coarsely pureed or crushed by hand
1/2 cup bottled clam juice (120ml)
1 pound spaghetti (450g)
1/4 cup minced flat-leaf parsley leaves and tender stems (from 1 small bunch)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In a medium bowl, toss the shrimp well with the 1/2 teaspoon salt and the baking soda. Set aside.
In a large skillet or sauté pan, heat 4 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering, Add reserved shrimp shells and cook, stirring constantly, until they've all turned a reddish color, about 4 minutes. Off the heat, remove shells using tongs, a slotted spatula, and/or a slotted spoon, allowing any excess oil to drain back into skillet as you go; discard shells. You should still have plenty of oil left in the skillet.
Return skillet to medium-high heat, add shrimp, and cook, stirring and turning occasionally, until shrimp are just starting to brown in spots and are almost fully cooked through, about 3 minutes. Off heat, transfer shrimp to a plate and set aside.
Return skillet to medium-low heat. Add garlic, oregano, and chile flakes and cook, stirring, until garlic is just beginning to turn golden, about 3 minutes. Add brandy, if using, and cook until almost fully evaporated. Add tomatoes and clam juice and bring to a simmer. Season with salt.
Boil pasta in a pot of salted water until al dente. Drain, reserving about 1 cup of pasta cooking water, and add pasta to the sauce along with a splash of pasta cooking water. Add shrimp and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until sauce reduces and clings to pasta and shrimp are fully heated through; add more pasta water as necessary if the sauce becomes too dry. Season with salt, if necessary.
Stir in parsley and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Serve right away.
Red chile flakes can vary greatly in their heat intensity, as does personal tolerance for heat. The quantity given here is a rough estimate, but follow your own judgment based on the strength of your chile flakes and the degree of heat you want.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 24g||31%|
|Saturated Fat 4g||18%|
|Total Carbohydrate 95g||35%|
|Dietary Fiber 7g||23%|
|Total Sugars 8g|
|Vitamin C 35mg||177%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|