If you were to ask me what my favorite reading material might be (and why would you, really?), I would tell you how I'm irresistibly drawn to reading books in which the narrative has some connection with food/cooking/culinary culture/history, etc. Oh, sure, I read lots of other things, but I'm terribly fascinated with how food and cooking intersect with people’s lives and connect them to others and possibly changes them in some profound way. Food can be a powerful thing in that way, don’t you think?
So it was that I came across Faith Willinger’s book, Adventures of an Italian Food Lover, about 4 years ago and grabbed it up. It did not disappoint. This is a lovely collection of whimsical stories of the people, places, and experiences that Ms. Willinger has encountered in her years in Italy, sprinkled throughout with recipes and savvy travel tips. I’ve cooked a few of the recipes from the book, but this is one that we particularly love and comes from a little seafood restaurant in Catania. It’s very special indeed.
What makes this dish extraordinary is the pesto sauce, the base of which is an amazingly flavorful broth that is made from the shrimp shells and a few tomatoes and then reduced, strained, and blended with mint, basil, pine nuts and almonds and oh, is it ever good! Deceptively flavorful.
And while this may not be a quick and easy pasta dish that you throw together at the end of a long work day, it certainly is worthy of a lazy, slow Sunday afternoon when you feel like lingering a little longer in the kitchen. You will be so very glad you did. Here’s the recipe…
Tubetti with Shrimp and Sicilian Pesto
Recipe adapted from Faith Willinger, Adventures of an Italian Food Lover
The original recipe calls for 1 lb of pasta, but I think that stretches this pesto sauce just a little too far. I've reduced the pasta to 3/4 of a lb and it seems about right. You can, of course, increase the pesto sauce to fit 1 lb, but this really does make a lot of pasta. Also, I buy shrimp that has already been cleaned so it's a cinch to just slip off the shells. As you may notice, there is no olive oil in this pesto, and it really doesn't need it. But I like to finish the dish with a nice drizzle when serving. Grated cheese is optional.
1 pound large or medium shrimp, with shells
4-6 cherry tomatoes
2 Tbls. chopped almonds
2 Tbls. pine nuts
1 tsp. chopped fresh mint
2 Tbls. chopped fresh basil
1 garlic clove
¾ lb short pasta (like tubetti)
Peel and clean the shrimp, reserving the shells. Combine the shrimp shells, tomatoes, and 2 cups water in a medium saucepan and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain the mixture and reduce the broth over high heat to obtain 3/4 cup stock. Adjust for salt.
Combine the almonds, pine nuts, mint, basil, garlic, and 1/4 cup of the stock in a blender or food processor.
Bring a pot with 6 quarts of water to a boil. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of salt and the pasta. Cook the pasta until if offers considerable resistance to the tooth, around three-quarters of the package recommended cooking time. Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the pasta water.
Transfer the pasta to a large skillet or a 3 or 4 quart pot. Add the pesto, 1/2 cup stock and the shrimp. Cook over high heat, stirring gently and frequently, until the pasta is cooked through and the shrimp are hot. Add the pasta water, 1/4 cup at a time, if the sauce seems dry. Add salt and pepper to your taste.