Prior to the age of 21 I had rarely cooked. I could manage in the kitchen, usually baking cookies or cake from a mix, reheating food in the microwave, scrambling an egg and even boiling spaghetti and mixing it with a canned sauce. I thought I could cook, but I truly had no idea.
I finally realized this just before my 21st birthday when I moved to Florence, Italy, to study for a semester. I took the usual for-credit but easy classes while I was there: intro to Italian, art history, photography, even some type of political science class I can no longer recall. My last class wasn’t for credit, I signed up simply because it sounded fun and interesting: Jewish-Italian culture through culinary traditions. Basically, a cooking class. At the time I never could have predicted that class would have such a profound impact on my life.
After the first few lessons I felt motivated to cook for myself at home. I chose an American-Italian dish I’d ordered many time in the States: spaghetti agli e olio with shrimp (spaghetti with garlic and oil). And I was going to use raw shrimp. Yes, RAW! And these came from the Central Mercado and luckily they weren’t head-on but certainly weren’t peeled and deveined. I didn’t even know shrimp had to be deveined.
I shopped for the rest of my ingredients: a bottle of high-quality olive oil, dried spaghetti, a head of garlic and broccoli to go with my shrimp. And for the first time ever made my own dish by sauteing the shrimp (which I think I peeled), chopped garlic and broccoli florets in the olive oil, boiling the spaghetti separately and adding it to the mix. I’m certain I didn’t use enough salt, but what the heck did I know back then?
When I was done cooking, I poured myself a glass of wine (basically because I could) and set it beside my heaping plate of pasta. I was so proud of myself I even took a photograph (again, a warning of what was to come as now I photograph everything I eat). Then, with my mouth watering and stomach growling, I took my first bite.
Yeah, you guessed it. It was nasty. I don’t remember the specifics of that meal other than an overwhelming sense of disappointment. I believe the pasta was bland, the shrimp were tough and of course still with their veins. And the broccoli made no impression whatsoever.
I wound up tossing the dish and probably ate Ritz cracker and Nutella instead. (That was my favorite snack there – I don’t know how I didn’t come home weighing an extra hundred pounds!) But I didn’t give up on it. I asked my cooking instructor what to do differently – he of course said to use more olive oil, his answer to everything. And I bought an English-language Italian cookbook that remains on my bookshelf to this day. I practiced and eventually got it right, and discovered this was really an easy dish, it just took some trial and error for this novice cook.
Spaghetti Agli e Olio with Shrimp and Broccoli – Serves 4
2 heads broccoli, trimmed, and the stems peeled and sliced
1/2 pound dried spaghetti noodles (I prefer whole grain thin spaghetti but use what you like best)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 pound large shrimp (16-20 count), peeled and deveined
4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup dry white wine (optional; can substitute with a few squeezes fresh lemon juice)
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to boil. Also prepare and ice bath. Add the broccoli to the boiling water and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the broccoli becomes slightly tender. Remove the broccoli from the water and submerge in the ice bath until cool. Drain well and set aside. NOTE: Do not discard the boiling water.
Return the water to a boil and add spaghetti. Cook following package instructions.
While the pasta is cooking, heat 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, carefully add the shimp to the pan and cook until seared on both sides but not cooked through, about 1 minute per side. Season with a pinch of salt. Remove the shrimp from the pan and set aside.
If necessary, add the remaining olive oil to the pan and decrease the heat to medium. Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the drained broccoli to the pan to reheat, then pour in the wine if using. Return the shrimp to the pan and cook until heated through, about 2 minutes.
By now the spaghetti should be done cooking. Use tongs to transfer the spaghetti to the pan and mix with the other ingredients. Don’t worry about draining the spaghetti well. If the dish is too dry, slowly add the cooking water 1 teaspoon at a time. Season to taste with salt and pepper, although I usually find it seasoned very well at this point on account of all the salt used in the boiling water.
Divide the spaghetti, shrimp and broccoli between four plates and pour 1 tablespoon of sauce over each. Buon appetito!