Look. Wonderful as these foodstuffs are, it's not all pot roasts and chili and disturbingly alien holiday candies out there in the world of eating; nor should it be in your kitchen. Sometimes you're not looking to spend all day slow-cooking some large quantity of rich, meaty food to serve to a lot of people. Sometimes you're looking to prepare something quick and elegant to impress one specific someone, or at least to temporarily distract one specific someone from the fact that, after she schlepped the kids to grandma's house and put on makeup and lit romantic scented candles to overwhelm the nauseating smell of dried-up baby formula, you couldn't even be bothered to change out of your cutoff jorts.
This is why you are going to make pasta tonight. It's quick, it's cheap, and it doesn't taste like it's either of those things, which is why Italians have been selling it to people at huge markups for the past several centuries.
We're going to work fast, with minimal setup; dinner will go from 75 percent not-done to 100 percent done in the final five minutes or so of the process. Let's do it.
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To begin with, fill a large stockpot with saltwater. I'd like to draw a useful distinction, here, between salted water (which many wussy pasta recipes call for) and saltwater (which you will be using today). Salted water is freshwater with some salt in it, which might taste a little bit salty, but is still essentially freshwater with some salt in it. Saltwater contains a horrifying amount of salt, tastes and smells like the ocean, and could never pass for freshwater with some salt in it, because it has ceased to be freshwater with some salt in it and has become saltwater, which, as you might now suspect, is why we are calling it saltwater..
So here's what you do: In your pantry or cupboard, you have one of those cylindrical containers of salt. You open it, you upend it over your pasta water for a full second, you stir until the salt is dissolved into the water, and then you dip your finger into the water and taste it. Does it taste like the ocean, briny and harsh and intense? No? Repeat the process. Then do it again. You will likely complete a few repetitions, and you will have added a scary-seeming amount of salt to the water, and suddenly it will taste like the ocean, and you will have enough salt in your saltwater. Cover the pot and place it over high heat on the stovetop.
Why did you just put so much salt in your pasta water? Good question. There are three different answers. The first is that the salt will make the pasta itself taste better. The second is that the salt will make the pasta water taste better, and you are going to use the pasta water as an ingredient a little bit later. The third is that a guy on the internet friggin' told you to, so make with the salt and shut up about it.
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Now, while the pot is heating on the stove, peel and devein a bunch of raw shrimp, setting the empty shells aside as you remove them. Peeling and deveining shrimp is miserable, and you might be tempted to just buy some peeled and deveined shrimp instead. It's no big crime if you do, but we're going to use the shrimp shells today, so if you can, get some with shells on 'em. We are not, however, going to use the veins and intestines of the shrimp, so if you can find those shrimp that have shells but are already deveined, do not deprive yourself of them, because deveining shrimp is an incredibly sucky endeavor.
(A note here on shrimp quantities and sizes. It's not possible for everybody to get exactly the same size of shrimp, which of course determines how many of them will be in, say, a pound. The best shrimp count for this preparation is 16/20—16 to 20 pieces of shrimp per pound. It's the best of all worlds: a pound or a pound-and-a-half of 'em will yield a satisfying number of shrimp, a lot of shrimp shells for flavoring your pasta water, and shrimp that are pleasingly large so that you do not feel as though your plate has been dredged through an effusion of krill; and a pound or a pound-and-a-half of them can usually be purchased without requiring the forfeiture of your firstborn child. However, if you cannot find this size, or cannot comfortably afford it, smaller ones are just fine. Don't get really tiny ones or you will spend your entire life peeling them. Don't get preposterously enormous shrimp, either: A pound of these will yield a comically tiny number of shrimp and they will look ridiculous on your plate and, frankly, preposterously enormous shrimp are generally less flavorful than their smaller brethren. Just sayin'.)
So now you've got a pound of peeled and deveined raw shrimp sitting there, hopefully atop a paper towel or something so that they do not get stinky shrimp liquid all over your countertop. You also have a big, gray pile of shrimp shells. Dump the shrimp shells into your pasta water. That's right, dump 'em in there. Do it!
Here's another place where you might be asking what the hell we're doing to the pasta water, and why. Ooh, is the pasta gonna taste like shrimp? you might be wondering. No. It is not. But the pasta water will taste mildly of shrimp (accentuated by all the salt you added), and, again, we're using the pasta water as an ingredient. There's a reason for this.
When you make a seafood pasta with live bivalves (clams, mussels, etc.) in their shells, there comes a magical moment during the cooking process when the heat finally kills those little fuckers and their shells creak open, each individual one releasing a small amount of exquisitely briny, pungent, richly flavorful juice into your sauce—so that when you eat linguine with white clam sauce, it tastes like clams (splendidly, ecstatically like clams) even when there is not a clam parked on your tongue. Likewise mussels. Not likewise shrimp, which, in addition to being less vividly flavorful than bivalves to begin with, also don't come packaged inside a hard closed shell in which to store a small but crucial quantity of flavor-juice to be released during cooking. This means that, when you make dishes with shrimp, you only really get a vivid taste of shrimp when there is a shrimp on your palate, which is problematic because shrimp are fucking expensive, especially ever since BP destroyed the Gulf of Mexico.
So you're addressing this problem by creating, in your pasta pot, a strong, briny liquid that tastes, mildly but unmistakably, like shrimp—and which also, because it will eventually contain the starch discharged from the pasta you will cook in it, will function quite nicely as an addition to the sauce you will be serving with your pasta. An elegant solution, yes? Well screw you!
OK, back to the stovetop. The water has begun to boil, the shrimp shells in it turned pink a few minutes ago; grab a slotted spoon or some tongs, get the shrimp shells outta there, replace them with a half a pound of linguine, and set a timer for 10 minutes. You may now dump those shells in the trash and tell them that you will see them in hell.
Time to work quickly. While the pasta is cooking and the timer is counting down, mince a few nice big cloves of garlic, grumble about how much you fucking hate mincing garlic and what a bunch of bullshit this is, and plan out all the awful things you are going to put in your hate e-mail to the jerk who told you to mince a bunch of stupid garlic. I'm sorry. Mincing garlic is miserable. It's also worth it. Mince some garlic. This should take five minutes or so, accounting for the time you will spend sighing heavily and rolling your eyes and holding the knife to your own throat. Give the pasta a stir.
Five minutes (or so) remaining. In your biggest skillet or saucier pan, get a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil mildly hot and cook your stupid minced garlic with a bunch of significantly less stupid crushed red pepper over low-medium heat. When, after a couple of minutes, the garlic softens and begins to turn golden, bump the heat up to medium-high and add three or four nice big glugs of cheap white wine to the pan. Swirl it around and bring it up to a steady simmer.
Beep! (Or ding! or this onomatopoeia bullshit is too cutesy by half! or whatever.) The timer just went off: turn off the heat under your pot of pasta and turn up the heat under your pan of garlic and white wine. With your tongs, extract the linguine from the pasta water and drop it into the pan with the garlic and white wine. Using a ladle or that one mug of yours that does not have cold coffee dregs stagnating in its bottom, scoop a half-cup or so of hot pasta water into the pan, too. Now, grabbing with your bare hand, add the peeled, deveined shrimp to the pan as well. Give it all a swirl and a half-hearted toss with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula or your trusty tongs or your car keys.
So now the shrimp are cooking in the pan, with the linguine, white wine, garlic, and wonderful shrimpy pasta water. You've got just a couple of minutes until those shrimp will be cooked; toss the contents of the pan a couple of times with whatever garden rake or hapless domestic animal you've pressed into service as a kitchen implement, then quickly chop a good-sized handful of parsley. Don't worry about getting some kind of fine mince here. Just bunch up some parsley on your cutting board and give it a nice rough chop.
Done chopping? Look back at the stove. Whaddya know? Your shrimp are (likely) done (or close to it, in which case give the pan a toss and another minute or two to finish cooking)! Squeeze some lemon juice over the pan's contents, grab your trusty tongs, and get your delicious food the hell out of there and onto a pair of plates. Top each plate with a drizzle of the leftover liquid in the pan, some grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese (go with your preference, here; I prefer the saltier, sharper pecorino romano, but parmesan is certainly the more orthodox choice), and a sprinkling of the chopped parsley; serve with a salad and chilled white wine.
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Voila. In the time it takes to cook a half a pound of linguine, you produced a delicious dinner for two that will make you seem like the sort of person who knows how to make food, and thus also like the sort of person who might potentially be a suitable companion for public outings, give or take a shower and some clean clothes. Salty and shrimpy and spicy and bright and acidic and hearty and voluptuously fatty. Exciting and satisfying. Sexy, even.
(Um, the food. Not you. But also maybe you. And that's cool, too.)
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org. Top image by Jim Cooke.