“Against all that propaganda for fancy eating and plain cooking, I hope to persuade you to cook fancy and just plain eat. First of all, it is better for your soul.” – Robert Farrar Capon
In the fall of 2009 I made the blasé, typical decision of a college undergraduate to study abroad in London. While I will insist my experience was more meaningful than the usual stories of partying heavily with a shameful YOLO mentality, I will admit it is because of one person in particular. Waiting to find the right friend group for any additional travels not only saved my budget, but led me to Leah, a food-lover and wine-drinker to give me a run for my money.
Now don’t get me wrong, I met many wonderful individuals while searching cobbled streets and trying to decipher the night bus schedule. But everyone in my little group will likely admit that Leah was our glue. One cannot deny her quiet, yet determined, listening—it demands to hear secrets and only because the result is proper advice from an old soul. She’s someone you can trust and suddenly, my exciting yet fairly textbook study abroad trip met a game changer. Here stood Leah, who matched my propensity to only increase thoughtful conversation with wine consumption* (a common characteristic of all my favorite people) and who would still go out and dance circles around everyone afterward. She somehow knew, and still knows, how to articulate the mass of thoughts in my head in a few cogent sentences. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but that is a friendship one doesn’t pass up.
So when I received Leah’s “I miss you” text the other day, I began thinking about her and her beautiful Greek/Italian family who love food, and the company that goes along with it, a rightfully inordinate amount. Once, at the direction of her sisters, I surprised Leah at her home on Long Island and spent the next four days gorging myself on great food and the closeness of a giant family dynamic (anathema to my own small, quiet, close-knit family). Before I even sat down, I was handed a glass of wine and shown plates of homemade smoked meats, gorgeous cheeses, and barraged with questions (in thick, yet wholly endearing Long Island accents) about how I take my caawfee and whether there was anything I will not eat (the answers are black and no, despite insistence that one must have a preference for milk fat percentages). By the end, my wine glass never reached half-empty and dolmades, spanakopita, and pastitsio were floating in my dreams. I was a Midwestern boy who found himself in heaven, if only heaven were located directly in the middle of the Mediterranean basin.
So in order to transport myself back to that semester and into the presence of a dear friend, I uncovered a lavish dish called shrimp saganaki--a generously broad variation on that wonderful Greek flambéed cheese dish I am sure you’ve had. A quick mixture of red and green pepper, onion, tomatoes, garlic, and ouzo is simmered like a stew and once reduced, becomes a glorious final resting place for an abundance of shrimp. Served with grilled bread, it is the perfect mixture of light, summery ingredients with the comforting techniques of a long-hand braise—with the complexity of a curry and the satisfaction that can only come when a dish demands a slice of bread, this meal is everything about my time with Leah I hold dear. It is indulgent, smart, and only asks for honesty. So make a big batch at home, dip your bread until your large heart bursts, and enjoy with a glass of dry white wine filled to the brim.
*When we first arrived in London, Leah thought the bottles of wine in England were tiny—turns out, her family only buys 1.5L bottles and she didn’t realize 750ml was standard everywhere. You can see why we get along.
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen
A few notes on this one: the flavors in this dish meld fabulously after a day in the fridge, so if you’re willing, make it a day in advance. America’s Test Kitchen uses 1 T. vodka and 1/8 t. anise seed to substitute for 1 T. ouzo—this is what I did and it worked wonders (don’t be nervous about the anise flavor, as it only adds a subtle background note). But, if you have ouzo on hand, by all means use it. I will take any excuse to eat grilled bread (especially rosemary and olive loaves), but this dish would be superb on a bed of basmati rice.
1 ½ lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined (save your shells for stock!*)
4 T. olive oil
3 T. vodka
½ t. anise seed
5 garlic cloves, minced
Zest of one lemon
Salt and Pepper
1 small onion, diced
1 small green pepper, diced
1 small red pepper, diced
½ t. red pepper flakes
One 28oz. can diced tomatoes, reserving 1/3 cup juices
Dry white wine (I used Pinot Grigio)
2 T. chopped parsley
4 oz. crumbled feta cheese
2 T. chopped dill leaves
Toss the shrimp, 1 T. olive oil, 1 T. vodka, ¼ t. anise seed, 1 t. garlic, lemon zest, ¼ t. salt, and a few grinds black pepper in a bowl; set aside.
Heat remaining olive oil in the bottom of a large skillet or heavy bottomed dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, red and green pepper, and ¼ t. salt. Cover and cook until vegetables begin to release their moisture, 3-5 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid begins to evaporate and the vegetables are soft. Add remaining garlic and red pepper flakes—stir constantly until fragrant (30 seconds). Add white wine, tomatoes and reserved juices, remaining vodka and anise seed, and increase heat to medium-high until simmering. Once simmering, reduce heat to medium and stir occasionally until the liquid has reduced and sauce has thickened, 6-8 minutes. Add parsley and season with salt and pepper.
Reduce heat to medium-low and add shrimp, along with any accumulated juices in the bowl. Make sure all shrimp have been coated in sauce and cover, stirring occasionally until shrimp are opaque throughout, 6-8 minutes (I used fairly small shrimp, as this is what I had on hand. Jumbo, or size 16-20, would work well here). Shrimp cook quickly, so do not be afraid to pull the pot from the heat. Carry over cooking, or the heat trapped inside the food, will keep cooking the shrimp, so it is better to pull them off a little too soon and to let the dish sit until they are ready.
Plate and sprinkle with feta and dill. Serve with plenty of grilled bread, cut on the bias.
*Seafood stock is easy! Put your shrimp shells in the bottom of a big pot. Cover with water, add a bit of salt, a bay leaf, and a peeled clove of garlic. Bring to a boil, cover, and turn off the heat. You will know it is done when your shells turn pink. Once cool, strain out the liquid, discard the shells and you’re good to go!