Using a recipe as a roadmap results in unending choices for dinner
Have you ever found yourself standing in front of your pantry or refrigerator, closer to dinner time than you care to admit, asking yourself, "What am I going to make for dinner?" If you answered yes, then we were thinking the same thing when I stumbled upon a recipe that helped to provide the answer. Frozen shrimp, spinach, garlic, dried spices, a lemon and a box of pasta proved to be exactly what I needed to pull together this delicious yet simple recipe for Garlic and Lemon Parmesan Shrimp Pasta.
There are many days when I approach dinner without a plan. Don't get me wrong, I still plan meals around recipes and try to use ingredients I already have on hand, either in my freezer or pantry.
I stock up on dried pasta when it is on sale, and had a few extra packages, which seemed like a good foundation for the rest of my dinner.
I have also started keeping fruits and vegetables on hand that have longer shelf lives like citrus, brussels sprouts and cauliflower, so I also had lemons. The nice thing about lemons is you can still use them for juice a couple of weeks after zesting them, as the pith, or white part just under the yellow skin protects the juicy inside. I have had luck with this by just placing them back into my fridge without wrapping them.
Lemons have proved to be the perfect fruit to have around. I have used their zest in both sweet and savory recipes, as well as drinks, and recently even some made some jam. When I have felt the need to juice the lemon, but have not had an immediate use for the liquid, I have frozen it in one tablespoon portions in ice cube trays. After the cubes have frozen, I place them in a zip-top bag for future use. It has turned out to be very convenient for use in recipes, as well as pitchers of iced tea and lemonade.
Fish and lemons are a perfect pair, so I went to my freezer. I found some frozen shrimp. I will admit, they were jumbo, larger than I would have preferred to use, but they were fine. They were "easy-peel," meaning their shells were scored for easy removal and did have attached tails, so after defrosting, I removed the shells and gently pulled the tails off to reveal the whole shrimp. Something else to note, shrimp are classified by size. This recipe calls for large, or 31/40 size, which means it takes 31 to 40 pieces of shrimp to equal one pound.
I had a container of fresh spinach that was no longer "salad worthy," but perfect for cooking. The recipe called for four cups, but instead of dragging out my measuring cups, I opted for measuring by the handful. The nice thing about this recipe is you can add as much as you'd like, and since I like more spinach, I added six handfuls.
Since first making this recipe, I have started to look at it as more of a roadmap than a strict recipe. What I mean by this is: I now see pasta, protein, green vegetable, acid, and seasonings. Using this thought process, and the thought that a map helps you get from one place to another, I have been able to use this recipe to create many other dishes.
I don't always have shrimp but have used chicken, salmon, and even prosciutto instead. I didn't use the same 1½ pounds of prosciutto, ultimately using far less, as you still need to think about a balance of flavor. Instead of fresh spinach, I have used frozen and even substituted arugula and kale on occasion. When I haven't had a leafy vegetable, I have sautéed different colored bell peppers and onions, and even small broccoli flowerets.
For the most part, pasta is typically made of the same ingredients, so using a different shaped pasta won't impact flavor, but it is interesting how the shape you select might affect your dish.
In this recipe, the spinach and sticky sauce cling to the long thin pasta, making it easy to also "stab" a piece of shrimp on your fork at the same time, creating the "perfect bite." Suppose you were going to use broccoli pieces, or perhaps chunks of another vegetable. In that case, you may want to consider a different shape, maybe penne or even a bite-sized variety like cavatappi. When considering the type of pasta to use, I always think about how to achieve the right combination of flavors on my fork at one time.
Spices are important too, and the combination included in this recipe is perfect. Still, I will admit to having substituted a pizza seasoning blend when I couldn't find any Italian seasoning, so look through your jars and find something that sounds good.
My last tip is always to reserve some water from your pasta pot. This liquid is great for providing a little extra moisture and contains starch from the pasta, so it can also help to thicken a thin sauce. Please remember, it also contains salt, so be sure to allow for this when adding salt along the way.
Whether you use this recipe "as-is," or develop a unique combination of your own, I encourage you to try it, as we think it is fantastic.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.