Shrimp spaghetti is to bayou kids what spaghetti and meatballs is to kids in the rest of the United States. This was my son Lucien’s favorite meal, which he would eat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It’s a near perfect meal—simple, sweet, perfectly balanced—and it’ll feed a big family or a crowd of friends. The recipe draws from the Creole cooking technique of smothering tomatoes long and slow. This version is made with store-bought sauce, but you can certainly make your own tomato sauce and cook it down in the same manner. Homemade tomato sauce tends to be thinner, so you might have to thicken it a bit with tomato paste to get the right consistency.
1/2 cup (120 ml) canola oil
2 1/4 pounds (1 kg) yellow onions, finely diced
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup (75 g) finely diced celery
1/2 cup (70 g) finely diced green bell pepper
5 cups (1.3 L) canned tomato sauce (from three 14.5-ounce/410 g cans; see Note)
5 teaspoons sugar
2 1/2 pounds (1.2 kg) peeled and deveined small or medium shrimp
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon hot sauce, preferably Original Louisiana Hot Sauce
1 pound (455 g) spaghetti, cooked as directed on the package (see Note)
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
2 tablespoons finely chopped green onion, for garnish
Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving (see Note)
Warm a wide, heavy-bottomed 15-quart (14 L) Dutch oven or stockpot over medium-high heat for 2 minutes, then add the oil and heat for 30 seconds. Add the onions—you should hear a sizzle when they hit the oil—and season with the salt. Stir well to coat the onions with the oil, then cook, stirring often, for about 25 minutes, until the onions are soft and golden (they should not have a lot of color at this point).
Add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the celery and bell pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 45 minutes.
Now you’re going to add the tomato sauce 1/2 cup (120 ml) at a time. Each time you add tomato sauce, add 1/2 teaspoon sugar. (Scandalous, I know.) So, let’s begin. Add 1/2 cup (120 ml) of the sauce and 1/2 teaspoon of the sugar, stir, and heat until the sauce is simmering and bubbling but not boiling, then simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Repeat this process until you’ve added all the sauce and all the sugar, then reduce the heat to its lowest setting and cook, stirring every 10 minutes, for 45 minutes more.
Meanwhile, put the shrimp in a large bowl and season it with the black pepper, cayenne, and hot sauce. Let it marinate on the counter while the sauce simmers.
When the sauce has simmered for 45 minutes, add the shrimp and 4 cups (1 L) hot water to the pot and stir to combine. Raise the heat to medium-high to bring the tomato sauce back up to a simmer, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook for 20 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened to the consistency of pizza sauce and no longer looks watery. Turn off the heat and let everything sit together for 30 minutes to allow the flavors to marry.
Serve the sauce over the cooked spaghetti, garnished with the parsley and green onion and topped with Parmesan.
Notes: Buy canned tomato sauce (not pasta sauce) with no added sugar or salt. This is important, because canned tomatoes are often racked with sugar and sodium. Try to buy organic, if possible. I like making this recipe with organic Muir Glen tomato sauce; my mom uses Del Monte sauce.
If you’d like one less pot to wash, cook the spaghetti right in the sauce the way some Cajuns do: 8 to 10 minutes before the sauce is done, crack the spaghetti in half and add it to the pot along with 1/4 cup (60 ml) water. The pasta’s starch helps to thicken the sauce. Cover the pot and simmer the noodles in the sauce for about 15 minutes.
When I was growing up, there was no real cheese in the grocery aisles down the bayou—only the “Parmesan cheese” that came in a green can. We all know that what comes out of that green can isn’t true cheese, so get a nice chunk of the real stuff and smother your spaghetti with freshly grated Parmesan.
Excerpted from Mosquito Supper Club by Melissa Martin (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020. Photographs by Denny Culbert.
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