Toasting pasta adds nutty dimension to shrimp dish with Spanish pedigree

Spanish-style Toasted Pasta with Shrimp Jill Blanchette/The Day

Toasting ingredients before you add them can make a world of difference in the final dish.

Toasting nuts transforms each variety into its best self. Many Indian recipes call for toasting spices first to bring out the natural oils and flavors, and toasting rice before cooking adds a wonderful nuttiness to the resulting pilaf.

This recipe, Spanish-style Toasted Pasta with Shrimp, taught me a thing or two about toasting pasta.

The dish is a take on fideo, sort of a poor-man's paella: toasted pasta simmered in a spicy tomato broth, but without the saffron and with far less seafood. This one is made with shrimp, but you could substitute chunks of boneless, skinless chicken breast, or even some appropriately marinated and flavored tofu.

I saw the recipe on an episode of "America's Test Kitchen," a cooking show on public television that focuses on harnessing the science of cooking to get the best results for any dish — kitchen as laboratory if you will. This show is hosted by Christopher Kimball — think an ultra-nerdy Alton Brown. Kimball and his phalanx of talented cooks each week take traditional, familiar dishes and show the home cook how to make them successfully every time.

A New York Times article about Kimball, who also produces another show, "Cook's Country," and publishes a couple of magazines, reveals the Westchester County, N.Y. native who now lives in Vermont as a producer who wears his New England Yankee practicality like a badge, eschewing culinary trends and focusing on frugality, always opting for practical techniques and providing substitutes for pricey, difficult-to-find ingredients, all the while dressed in $400 shirts. It's a really good read.

There is a companion website, americanstestkitchen.com, to which I subscribe ($29.95 for one year), where you can watch all the videos from the show and print or share the recipes.

As with most recipes from Kimball's shows and magazines, there's nothing casual with this one. It's quite precise in its measurements and directions, and it reflects Kimball's persnickety nature. When I made it, I used frozen, easy-peel shrimp and followed the directions exactly. The result was incredibly delicious and looked just like the photo on the website.

The Spanish flavors — the garlicky shrimp in tomato broth, the smokiness of the paprika, the richness of the wine and anchovy paste (don't skip), and the tangy finish of fresh lemon (don't skip that either) — are not familiar to my palate and were a delightful discovery.

This would be a great dish for company as well. It doesn't take hours to prepare — in fact, it's relatively simple — but it tastes very special, as if you had made a great effort for your guests.

Enjoy!

Spanish-style Toasted Pasta with Shrimp

3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

3 garlic cloves minced (1 tablespoon)

Salt and pepper

1½ pounds extra large shrimp (21 to 25 per pound), peeled and deveined, shells reserved

2¾ cups water

1 cup low-sodium chicken broth

1 bay leaf

8 ounces spaghettini or thin spaghetti, broken into 1- to 2-inch lengths (see note)

1 onion, chopped fine

1 (14½-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained and chopped fine

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

½ teaspoon anchovy paste

¼ cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Lemon wedges

Combine 1 tablespoon oil, 1 teaspoon garlic, ¼ teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper in a medium bowl. Add shrimp, toss to coat and refrigerate until ready to use.

Place the reserved shrimp shells, water, chicken broth and bay leaf in a medium bowl. Cover and microwave until the liquid is hot and the shells have turned pink, about 6 minutes. Set aside until ready to use.

Toss spaghettini pieces with 2 teaspoons of oil in broiler-safe 12-inch skillet until it is evenly coated. Toast over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until the pasta is browned and giving off a nutty aroma (it should be color of peanut butter), 6 to 10 minutes. Transfer the toasted pasta to a bowl. Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in the now-empty skillet over medium-high heat until the oil is shimmering. Add the onion and ¼ teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is softened and beginning to brown around edges, 4 to 6 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is thick, dry and slightly darkened in color, 4 to 6 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and add the remaining garlic, paprika, smoked paprika and anchovy paste. Cook until fragrant, about 1½ minutes. Add the toasted spaghettini and stir to combine. Adjust the oven rack so it sits 5 to 6 inches from broiler element and preheat the broiler.

Pour your shrimp shells and broth through a fine-mesh strainer into the skillet. Discard the shells. Add the wine, ¼ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper to the skillet and stir well. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring your pasta to a simmer. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is slightly thickened and the spaghettini is just tender, 8 to 10 minutes.

Scatter the shrimp over the spaghettini then stir to partially submerge the shrimp. Transfer the skillet to the oven and broil until the shrimp are opaque and the surface of spaghettini is dry with crisped, browned spots, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately, passing lemon wedges separately.

Note: To break the spaghettini into 2-inch pieces, loosely fold 4 ounces of the pasta in a kitchen towel, keeping the pasta in a flat layer, not bunched up. Wrap the towel around the pasta, then position the roll so that 1-2 inches of the pasta rests on the counter while the remainder hangs off the edge. Pressing the bundle against the counter, press down on the long end of the towel to snap the strands into pieces, sliding the bundle back over the edge after each break.

Recipe from America's Test Kitchen.

Jill Blanchette works at night at The Day. Share comments and recipes with her at j.blanchette@theday.com.

Spanish-style Toasted Pasta with Shrimp
Spanish-style Toasted Pasta with Shrimp Jill Blanchette/The Day

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