The existence of onyx spaghetti with shrimp, pistou & parsley is almost unfair to all other pasta dishes out there. Why? Because a) it looks very dramatic and tastes as rich and savory and satisfying as it looks AND
b) with one caveat, it comes together so quickly that it can even be a weeknight meal.
So what’s the caveat, you may be wondering…that you need to have tomato sauce and pistou on hand for the job. Wait…wait! Don’t walk away! It just so happens that both sauces freeze beautifully so that you can make both when you have time and then just keep them on hand for when you want to blow your family or friends away in less time than you can ever imagine.
I got the idea for this dish from a recipe I saw a while ago in Bon Appétit Magazine. Their recipe used Nduja, a spicy and spreadable pork salume from Italy. I was a little annoyed with my parents, actually!, because I had never heard of it and my dad is from Calabria, the birthplace of this sausage product! But then I remembered that he moved from Calabria in southern Italy all the way north to Milan when he was just 3 years old. Given that transportation wasn’t was it is today, I guess I can understand how my grandparents would have had to adapt to local ingredients and all that, and with the whole out-of-sight-out-of-mind thing, how they perhaps might have forgotten all about it and how, because of that, it would have never come up in conversation. Not once. Not in ALL the decades I’ve been alive…
Yes, I guess I can understand that. (Wink, mom and dad.)
Anyhow…I was clearly intrigued by this mysterious sausage spread and condiment and absolutely had to try it. And the recipe. But living in Auburn, Alabama as I do now, I could not find it locally and had to resort to ordering it online.
BUT…I did not like it. And as that was the central flavor enhancer in the spaghetti dish, I consequently didn’t care for that either. But I don’t consider that a comment on Nduja or on the Bon Appétit recipe, because I am fairly convinced the product I ordered was not good. At some point, once the bad memory of the one I ordered fades away, I will try other brands in an effort to pay tribute to yet another Italian culinary tradition.
In the meantime, after my initial failure, I scratched my head to identify another ingredient that would jazz up what is otherwise a rather bland tomato sauce-based pasta recipe with shrimp. It had to have the same flavor powerhouse characteristic of spicy and savory Nduja because a straight-forward tomato sauce, no matter how fresh and delicious, cannot give the dish enough of a savory zip.
I don’t really recall how pistou came to my mind, but as soon as it did the metaphorical bells went off in my head as the clouds in the sky parted to singing angels. Eureka…pistou! With its intense doses of Parmigiano-Reggiano, basil and garlic, pistou was a worthy and valorous substitute and had the heft to pull the whole thing off. Indeed. Plus, as an added bonus, it wasn’t spicy, which meant my girls could enjoy it too.
And they did. We all did. And I wasn’t even exhausted when I sat down to enjoy the meal…
making onyx spaghetti with shrimp & pistou
Let shrimp rest at room temperature while you are prepping everything else, as they will cook better when they are not right-out-of-the-refrigerator cold.
Make the pistou with a mortar & pestle. (Click here for the how to recipe.)
To store unused pistou: keep for 1 week in a sealable container in your fridge, topped with a thin film of olive oil or freeze for 3-4 months.) Or, you can quadruple the pistou recipe and create 5 butter-like bars that freeze beautifully and be on hand for other dishes.
Alternatively, you can use a mini food processor. Add 5 garlic cloves to a pot of boiling water and boil for 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and let cool. Remove their skin, slice each one in half, and remove the internal green sprout. Roughly chop garlic halves and place them in a small food processor along with a pinch of salt, 5 tablespoons of tomato paste, and 1 tablespoon of water. Mix until you can barely see pieces of garlic. Transfer to a medium-sized bowl and add ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil. Whisk until you can’t see oil anymore. Add ½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and mix again. Add ¼ cup of loosely-packed basil leaves, sliced into slivers, and mix well with a spoon. The pistou will resemble a paste when finished. Makes a generous ¾ cup.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add salt (rule of thumb is to add 1 tablespoon of Kosher salt for every 4 cups of water used). Add ¾ lb. of regular or squid ink spaghetti or linguine. I absolutely loved the ink squid spaghetti I ordered (from Amazon). Great texture and beautiful color. Boil until cooked through but still firm. Drain and immediately rinse with cold water to stop them from cooking further. Drain again and return to their pot. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and mix well to ensure pasta is coated evenly (to prevent sticking). Set aside.
Preheat a shallow skillet over medium‑low heat. Add 1 ½ tablespoons of olive oil and turn heat to medium-high. As the oil heats up, gently press the shrimp with a paper towel to absorb surface moisture.
Less moisture on surfaces allows for the hot oil to do its job and brown the surface of what you are cooking. Otherwise, it has to fight the moisture and lose cooking power. When the surface of the oil begins to swirl but is not yet smoking, place the shrimp in pan. Make sure there is plenty of room between each shrimp, like this,
as they will cook better. Sauté shrimp 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to a warmed plate,
and tent with aluminum foil to keep warm.
Pour 3 cups of plain tomato sauce into the same skillet. I cannot emphasize the ‘plainness’ of the tomato sauce (just an onion, oil or butter, strained tomatoes, salt and pepper). If the tomato sauce is too burdened with the strong flavors of oregano, green peppers, garlic, etc., then those flavors will compete with the fresh aroma of the pistou.
Also add 1/3 cup of water, and heat on medium-high until the sauce begins to bubble. Add 4-5 tablespoons of pistou and stir until well mixed. Once the sauce starts bubbling again, remove 1 cup of the sauce with a ladle for later use and then add the cooked spaghetti and mix into the remaining sauce until all spaghetti is evenly coated.
To plate: Ladle a quarter cup of sauce on each warmed plate and even surface out with the back of a large spoon. Twirl spaghetti around a large serving fork in and carefully arrange it to look like a volcanic mound on top of the sauce. Add a little more tomato sauce on the spaghetti. Artfully arrange the shrimp around the spaghetti. Spritz each plate with some fresh lemon juice and sprinkle chopped parsley on top. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.