Nothing is more evocative of summer in Provence than a light and flavor-filled shrimp dish. What if you’ve never been there, you say? Trust me when I say it makes no difference, you will think you have been there after this dish.
And for those who want to truly experience Provence without the cost and effort getting there, read Peter Mayle’s excellent book “A Year in Provence”. Throw in pasta and you will also be thinking of Tuscany while tasting Provence… so here is that combined sensation on a plate.
There seems to be an entire body of foody literature devoted to shrimp quality: which specific fisherman’s net caught them; were the waters they were caught in precisely in a certain temperature range; fresh vs frozen… you get the idea.
Well, here at Chez Chuck we are going to save you the time of reading what seems to be a body of work about the same size as the full collection of the Library of Congress. Shrimp is shrimp. There are only two main types sold in most places: Black Tiger; and White Pacific.
White Pacific shrimp is usually cheaper and perfectly fine for dishes where it’s the sauce that is the star of the meal, like heavily flavored stir fries, or shrimp curries (shrimp vindaloo being arguably a food group to itself, based on the number of times we indulge Chez Chuck).
For everything else use Black Tigers – when the shrimp is the star Tigers have more flavor and a better texture, and in fact I wouldn’t bother making this particular dish with Pacific White since their flavor is too weak.
Now for the great debate of fresh vs frozen shrimp. Finished debating? OK, the answer is whatever is cheaper (usually frozen is cheaper, but not always). It makes absolutely no difference at all to the flavor or texture, so go with cheap with Chef Chuck’s blessing!
On to the dish at last.
1 pound black tiger shrimp (see above for the reason why)
1 pound of loose or portobello mushrooms
4 – 5 good size cloves of garlic
1/2 small sweet onion, chopped small
fresh thyme, marjoram and basil
fresh asparagus (if in season)
- In olive oil, pan fry as many Black Tigers as you feel like for this dish. I would use a bit less than a pound, but it will be just as good with less or more. One more aside – when it comes to shrimp, size doesn’t matter unless you are grilling them straight on the barbecue in which case use the giants. And don’t ever use “cocktail” shrimp, they do’nt have much flavor and are too small to use. And besides, with that name it does make you wonder if they’ve been out on the town and are too hungover to fully participate in the meal!
- Each of the following saute steps should be in the same pan without cleaning it out in between so you are already blending flavors before the final assembly.
- Pan fry the shrimps on a medium-high heat – it takes approximately two minutes, and flip them once. It’s better to undercook at this stage if anything since they can be topped up at assembly. The beauty of shrimp is that they are forgiving – a bit overdone is not a disaster, but anything more than that starts to make them rubbery. If you accidentally overcook. take the overdone ones and slice them up as thin as possible. You won’t have the nice big chunks of shrimp that are so yummy, but you’ll still have the right flavor and texture. Set aside.
- Rough chop about a pound of loose white or Portobello mushrooms (packaged Portobello are good too, but don’t bother with packaged whites since they have no real flavor).
- Add the garlic cloves.
- Add the chopped sweet onion.
- Saute the mushrooms, garlic and onions in a mixture of olive oil and butter until the mushrooms have released ALL water. You want those bad boys cooked right down so each bite of them is an intense mushroom flavor.
- Add fresh herbs just as mushrooms start to release their water. . Do not used dried herbs for this dish-instead of thinking of Provence, you’ll be thinking about that documentary you saw on Provence – a pale imitation! Taste dependent, but Thyme is a must. I generally use thyme, marjoram and basil-quite a bit of basil.Chuck’s Tip: The easiest way to get the flavor of fresh herbs without the extreme aggravation of getting them off the stem, or plucking out loose stems later is to put everything you’re using in a single pile, squeeze it together, and tie with sewing thread wrapped around a couple of times and square knotted. If you pull it nice and tight, it won’t separate no matter how hard the boil or stir of the dish you’re making, and you just discard the clump of herbs before serving. Here at Chez Chuck we’re all about making things easy for ourselves without sacrificing flavor. I love this solution.
- Pan fry fresh asparagus in olive oil, to just cooked. If not in season, you can try whatever other fresh veg is available like green beans or peas but be warned, asparagus makes this meal perfect and anything else is a bit of a pale imitation. This is really a summer dish, and so if you can’t get fresh summery vegetables I would wait to make it until you can. Chop asparagus to bite-size and set aside.
- Olives, finely chopped – whether you love them or not, they are a great addition to this dish. Add tiny amounts for those who don’t love them, and add more for those who do. Fresh marinated olives can be hard to find, but you can often find quite good jarred ones at a deli or grocery store. We need to take a deep breath here so Chef Chuck can yell at the top of his lungs “Never ever use canned olives for anything other than ballast”. Those things inside the can are as similar to olives as grout is to tofu. In fact, if you happen to see them on a shelf while you’re walking down the grocery aisle, please avert your eyes – Danger Danger!
- Artichoke. Chez Chuck we love artichoke but have a confession to make – we don’t really know how to cook them properly. The reason we don’t know is we generally just buy them at a local deli where they are marinated and yummy so why bother? We have another confession to make… we also quite like artichoke hearts that have been in spring water (NOT the ones in oil) that are canned. YES, canned. Chop some of these up-not too much since they have a strong flavor and you don’t want the artichoke dominating the meal.
- Cook whatever pasta you like (I use spaghettini) al dente.
- When pasta is cooked throw all the non-pasta ingredients in the cooking pan to re-heat for one to two minutes, and add a pinch of salt. Transfer this into a big bowl and mix.
- Gradually add pasta until you think it’s the right ratio of ingredients to pasta and serve right away.
Provence and Tuscany are right there at the end of your taste buds, so enjoy the experience, you seasoned Chef Chuck food traveler!
See you in Provence.. once you’ve eaten this meal, I promise you will be booking flights.