Whether the cook is wooing someone special or feeding a house full of guests, shrimp scampi fits the bill. Its impressive presentation and utterly rich flavors belie the ease with which it is composed. The cook only needs to beware of overcooking both the shrimp and pasta and should only use the freshest possible shrimp and garlic, as well as quality pasta, to show it off.
At its most basic, shrimp scampi is simply shelled shrimp sautéed in butter and a lot of garlic. There’s no point in making shrimp scampi with anything other than the freshest and biggest shrimp available. Smaller shrimp don’t have the wherewithal to stand up for themselves in a sea of buttery garlic sauce, and shrimp that have been politely waiting for days for someone to cook them are likely to be mushy. This doesn’t mean that frozen shrimp are out; however, jumbos that were flash frozen immediately after being caught work just as well as those that have never been frozen.
Pasta is the second component in shrimp scampi. As the dish is so elegantly simple, the pasta as well as the shrimp must be exactly right. Dishes with few ingredients rely on texture as well as flavor to shine, so the pasta should be cooked al dente, or, as the Italians say, so it bites back when eaten. Mushy, overcooked pasta won’t make a satisfying bed for the shrimp.
Not only is how the pasta cooked important, but so is the pasta shape. Angel hair pasta is very thin and makes a subtle foundation for the shrimp to take center stage. It’s up to the cook to decide if fresh pasta is worth the expense, but if the answer is yes, it’s doubly important not to overcook it as fresh pasta needs only a brief plunge in boiling water.
Garlic, the third ingredient, must be as fresh as the shrimp. Dried garlic or garlic salt is absolutely forbidden in scampi; it would be like wearing flip-flops with a sequined, strapless gown. Preminced, jarred garlic might be acceptable in other recipes but not in scampi. Only fresh garlic that has been minced just before jumping into the saucepan will do. A squeeze of lemon and perhaps a handful of chopped herbs, and dinner is served.
The creative cook might feel the urge to experiment with perfection, and scampi is one of those dishes that delight in variations. Foodies bent on healthy feasting can add fresh spinach to the sauté pan and up the fiber by using multigrain pasta. Olive oil can be used instead of butter as well. Other variations include adding mushrooms and peas or changing up the seasonings with a Cajun or curry twist.