My love affair with Italian cuisine began long ago in the late 1950’s when our father, who was quite the gastronome unbeknownst to me back then, took us one Saturday morning to an Italian delicatessen that had just opened in our local market town.
I’ll never forget the wonderful smell and mind boggling sight of vast hams and air-dried salamis suspended from the ceiling; sawdust on the floor, huge wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese carelessly stacked like the leaning tower of Pisa and shelves filled with jars of fascinating little things that looked quite other-worldly to my 7-year old mind.
Most of Britain was unfamiliar with Italian food back then and spaghetti continued to be viewed with suspicion for a number year after that. I remember a school chum running out of our kitchen crying “I’ll never eat those worms!” I had no problem eating them, in fact I could eat pasta every day of the year without the same sauce twice, which is almost true in that I’d like to but life tends to get in the way.
Pasta is also a great way to feed a crowd with just a few really good ingredients and a favorite book of mine that’s now well-thumbed and spotted with sauce, is Pasta Italian Style by Patricia Lousada. Sticking to mainly classic Italian dishes, it’s a fail-safe kitchen companion that’s as comfortable as an old pair of slippers.
I’ve slightly adapted this recipe which is lovely and fragrant with a touch of warmth. The good news is that you can make the sauce ahead and freeze it.
If you have shell-on shrimp, you can make a simple shrimp butter using the shells (you didn’t throw those away, did you?)
PASTA WITH A SHRIMP SAUCE
1lb (450g) of raw shrimp (if they’re in the shell, use the shells to make a shrimp butter – see below)
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 tablespoon of butter
2 shallots, finely minced
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of chopped parsley
3 tablespoons of cognac
8 fl oz (240ml) of dry white wine
2 medium sized tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
6 fl oz (180ml) of heavy cream
A pinch of cayenne pepper
1lb (450g) of small pasta shapes
A tablespoon of shrimp butter* or regular butter to finish
Heat the oil and butter in a wide saute pan with a lid. Cook the carrot and shallots over a low heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the shrimp, garlic, parsley, a pinch of cayenne and sea salt to taste. Cook, stirring for about 3 minutes then add the cognac and bring the heat up to evaporate it quickly. Add the wine, tomato paste and chopped tomato and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes, then remove from the heat and cool slightly.
Transfer the shrimp mixture to a food processor and blend to a puree. You can freeze the sauce at this point, otherwise transfer it back to the saute pan, and add the cream. Adjust the seasoning and heat it through gently to thicken the sauce while you cook the pasta.
Drain the cooked pasta quickly and put it back in the pan with about a tablespoon of butter or shrimp butter – toss it around to coat well before pouring the warmed shrimp sauce over.
Serve the pasta in a large warmed bowl with a scattering of chopped parsley.
Parmesan isn’t served with this – it would compete with the delicate seaside flavors.
*To make a simple shrimp butter (if you have raw shrimp shells), put them in a heavy pan with about 1oz (28g) of unsalted butter and a grind of sea salt. Heat gently until the butter is melted and the shells have turned pink then strain in a fine mesh sieve over a small bowl, pushing on the shells to get as much butter as possible.