Shrimps alla Fra Diavolo is a foolproof pasta dish fancy enough for company but easy enough for a weeknight. Like all recipes in The Mystery Chef’s Never Fail Cook Book (1949), success is a function of the recipe, not the chef. Aside from basic knife skills and a little bit of patience, this delicious dish demands little from the home cook. There are dozens of variants of dishes alla fra diavolo on the internet. Some are thick sauces meant to be served over pasta while others are more like glazes or glorified spice blends. The common thread in all of them is a spicy backbone – fra diavolo is Italian for “angry brother” – usually provided by cayenne or crushed red pepper.
There’s no typo in Shrimps alla Fra Diavolo – it’s common in many of my older cookbooks to use “shrimps” as the plural of shrimp. It is hardly universal, and seems to be particularly common when referred to canned products: i.e. canned shrimps vs. canned shrimp. I still see “shrimps” used from time to time in British cookbooks and occasionally on menus in Asian restaurants. Despite what the internet might try to tell you, this is still technically correct, even if the simple plural ‘shrimp’ is now more fashionable. The internet is also very little help in explaining why shrimp is acceptable and shrimps is not. It would certainly be odd to order “fried chickens” or buy “canned tunas” when the portion size is much less than a full animal, but we would never talk about buying a “tinned sardine” or “smoked oyster”. Shrimps quite frankly seems the logical choice, popular usage be damned.
The Mystery Chef’s fra diavolo is an onion-based pasta sauce with a hint of tomato for color and acidity, but omitting the garlic found in most modern incarnations. The onions are fried and then simmered in white wine before adding the tomatoes and spices. The spice level is ‘barely there’, aligned with the mid-century American palate, and is the one element that I immediately changed in my adaptation. The ‘shrimps’ are stirred in at the very end of the recipe, along with a pat of butter and fresh parsley. There’s a lot of chopping involved up front but once you get going the whole recipe takes less than 45 minutes start to finish. You may also use precooked ‘shrimps’ to shorten cooking time further.
In addition to changing the spice level I’ve taken advantage of an immersion blender to simplify preparation. The immersion blender wasn’t invented until a year or so after the Mystery Chef’s cookbook and was decades away from being a common kitchen implement, but it makes this recipe a lot less trouble. The original recipe calls for finely chopped vegetables to be cooked and softened and then mashed through a sieve to remove the solids. This is much more trouble than it’s worth. The immersion blender makes quick work of the solids, giving you a thick sauce with the smooth texture of Campbell’s tomato soup. (In this context that’s a compliment).
Shrimps alla Fra Diavolo is best served over pasta with a little bit of romano cheese grated over the top. Add a side of Caesar salad and fresh green beans for a complete meal. If you’re feeling extra consider serving with risotto and fresh peas. Crusty bread and good butter is always a plus. Enjoy!
- 1 ½ lb medium shrimp (may use raw or pre-cooked shrimp, see instructions)
- ½ cups butter
- ½ cups extra virgin olive oil
- 3 leeks
- 2 large sweet onions
- 4 tbsp fresh chives (finely chopped)
- ½ tsp chopped garlic
- 2 cups dry white wine
- ½ tsp cayenne pepper (or more to taste)
- 1 15 oz can diced tomatoes
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 2 tsp chicken bouillon
For the final preparation:
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
- If using raw shrimps, peel and devein and set aside. Trim leeks and chop fine, including both green and white parts. Peel onions and chop fine.
- Melt butter and olive oil in a large enameled dutch oven over medium heat. When butter is melted add leeks, onions, and chives. Cook for 5-10 minutes until onions start to brown, then add garlic and stir once or twice. If you are using fresh shrimps, add them to the pot now and cook until they are a little bit pink.
- Add the wine and spices and simmer, uncovered for 10 minutes. If you are using fresh shrimps remove them after simmering and set aside and peel.
- Stir in tomatoes and tomato paste and cook five minutes more.
- Remove from heat. Taking care to minimize the spattering of hot liquids, blend to a fine puree with an immersion blender (or blend in batches in a conventional blender). This should leave you with a thick, orange-colored sauce.
- Return the sauce to the heat and add the shrimps back to the mixture. Stir in 2 tbsp unsalted butter and parsley. Add additional salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately.