As much as I love to play in the kitchen, even I have days when I want an easy meal. But most people who eat my easy meals can’t believe food this good can be so easy. The secret is in what I’m emphasizing all month: a well-stocked basic pantry.
Some of my favorite easy meals developed from flavors I fell in love with while exploring other countries and cultures. My freezer always holds a bag of frozen shrimp, often destined for the grill. But on rainy, freezing, or just plain lazy nights, a cast-iron skillet and oven broiler fill in beautifully. Add some oil, a couple of spices, and a lot of garlic, and the meal brings back memories of Spanish tapas bars and gambas al ajillo. If I cooked up a pot of beans earlier in the week, or have a can stashed on the shelf, I can sip wine, think fondly of Italy, and have a surprisingly filling vegetarian or vegan pasta on the table in less than 30 minutes.
Spanish Shrimp in Garlic Oil
4 garlic cloves
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon Home-Smoked Chili Paste or cayenne (optional)
lemon wedges (optional)
Defrost the shrimp under cold running water if frozen, and then remove the peels, saving them for Shrimp Stock. Thinly slice the garlic. Place an oven rack as close to the broiler as possible; heat at the low setting.
In a large, broad, cast iron or other ovenproof skillet, warm the oil over low heat (the oil should cover the bottom of the skillet). Add the garlic; cook for 2–3 minutes, until golden. Increase the heat to medium high. Add the shrimp and spices; stir to blend. Immediately place the skillet under the broiler; cook, shaking the skillet once or twice and stirring as needed to prevent overbrowning, for about 5 minutes, until the shrimp are pink and the mixture is bubbly. If desired, serve with hunks of Sourdough Cabin Bread or over rice and garnish with lemon wedges. Serves 3–4.
Tips & Tricks
- We often eat this dish as a meal over rice with a vegetable side. With just bread and lemon, it’s an easy appetizer. If you’re serving a bigger group or a mix of carnivores and vegetarians, the shrimp can work as side dish paired with Smashed Bean Pasta (see below).
- For a rice meal, I usually replace the water with Shrimp Stock for bonus flavor. Other options include couscous: plain, spiced with cinnamon, or tinted with saffron dissolved in the hot water before it’s poured over the grains.
- I find there’s plenty of kick in this recipe, so I keep it simple. But garlic lovers could let the shrimp and another 4 cloves of minced garlic marinate in a little oil for up to 15 minutes; add the shrimp and marinade to the pan. You can also preflavor the oil by cooking the shrimp shells and 4 cloves of smashed garlic over low heat for a few minutes and then straining the oil.
- Check the shrimp often while it’s under the broiler; you want it to cook through yet not become tough. The garlic should be crisp and caramelized but not burned black.
Twice as Tasty
I was a post-college backpacker on my first trip to Italy, making the most of cheap hostels and a Eurail Pass. I was also vegetarian (when I started the trip) and on the constant lookout for cheap, filling meals that went beyond bread and cheese or pasta and sauce. Fortunately, the Italians are as good at delicious, affordable food as they are at special, pricy meals.
I soon discovered pasta e fagioli, a soupy pasta dish typically made with tube-shaped pastas and cranberry beans. But since I was traveling in summer, I was most drawn to a drier variation that was more of a bean-based pasta sauce. Each bar had its own version, from a tomato sauce with a few beans thrown in to a bean puree that acted like a vegan alfredo. It wasn’t long before I was replicating the blend with a can of beans, bundle of pasta, and fresh tomatoes and basil in hostel kitchens and later at home.
Smashed Bean Pasta
1-1/2 cups cooked unseasoned beans, Seasoned Pot Beans, or canned beans, drained
1–2 small lemons, or about 1-1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/16 teaspoon Home-Smoked Chili Paste or cayenne
1 medium onion (about 1 cup when sliced)
4 cloves garlic
4 medium tomatoes (about 1-1/2 cups when diced), or 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
1/2 cup black or green brined olives (optional)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon dried basil
grated Parmesan to taste (optional)
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and then cook the pasta according to package directions until al dente; drain the pasta when it’s ready. While the water is boiling, Smash 1 cup of beans in a medium bowl. Zest 1 lemon, adding the zest to the bowl if desired or setting it aside for another use. Squeeze in its juice, and then stir it in along with the paprika, salt, chili paste, and remaining beans.
Chop the onion, garlic, tomatoes, and olives as coarsely or finely as you like. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat and sauté the onion for about 10 minutes, until it begins to caramelize. Add the garlic and basil; sauté another 2–3 minutes, until the garlic begins to turn golden. Stir in the tomatoes and the bean mixture. Reduce the heat to low and cook for about 5 minutes, until the beans are heated through.
Toss the olives with the drained pasta, and then add it to the bean mixture; toss until combined. Divide among bowls and top with an additional lemon slice and grated cheese, if desired. Serves 3–4.
Tips & Tricks
- Just about any bean works in this recipe. If you’re planning to make a dip with cannellini beans, chickpeas, or other beans, simply cook up an additional 1/2 cup of dried beans with the batch.
- I usually just smash the beans with a fork or potato masher. But you can turn them into a creamy sauce by pureeing them with an immersion blender, adding a little bit of cooking liquid or water until you get your desired consistency.
- For a bright, lemony flavor, I use lemon zest and juice. If you want a subtler flavor, I still recommend zesting the lemon before you squeeze it; the zest freezes well for a later meal. If your fruit bowl is empty, just use bottled juice.
- If you’ve built up a Twice as Tasty pantry, this meal comes together even more quickly. Use frozen grilled onions and tomatoes and Roasted Garlic to cut down on the sautéing time.
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Tried & True
These tools and supplies may help you make the recipes in this post:
- I feel a bit like a broken record when I talk about cast iron, but it really is worth having in your kitchen, particularly if your other pans have handles that will melt under a broiler. Just buying one in a versatile size, along with a removable silicone handle for safety, will quickly change how you cook.
- A sharp knife makes creating ultrathin slices of garlic painless. This set of ceramic sharpening sticks has been my go-to tool since I was an oboist making my own reeds; it’s now been coopted into my kitchen setup.
- A couple of years ago, I was gifted the other end of the ceramic spectrum: ceramic knives. These are also great at cutting ultrathin garlic slices, but they won’t be your only garlic knife: the manufacturer advises against the rocking motion I use for mincing garlic.
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