Second-Place Scampi

Scampi Buzara 

So, the dust has settled, the paint has dried. I’m not even doing a double take anymore every time I open up this page and see all these unfamiliar shapes and patterns. I must say, I’m very glad that you (well, most of you 🙂 welcomed the change so enthusiastically. Can you believe I very nearly couldn’t bring myself to go through with it? I kept thinking that if I wake up one morning a few months from now and can’t stand it, it’ll look awfully silly to change back. But I guess it’s kind of like moving to a new house – as much as you might think you’ll never love these walls and carpets as much as the last ones, eventually they do start to feel like home.

But that’s quite enough about blog design, isn’t it? It’s time to get back to food! And today I’m finally getting around to giving you the recipe for one of the best things we ate during our recent trip to Croatia. Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, though, I have to be honest about something – in a perfect world this isn’t quite the recipe I would be bringing you. In that world I would be bringing you the recipe for something similar that qualified as one of the top ten things I’ve ever eaten. The fact of the matter is, though, that I can’t very well give you a recipe for something I’ve never managed to successfully make myself, can I? Of course not. But I can tell you about it.

While we were in Croatia, there was one meal we really wanted to be special. On the second to last night we were going to be celebrating our tenth anniversary (not our wedding anniversary, I should clarify, but the anniversary of that rainy day we met on a cliff-top in Ireland) and naturally we wanted to splurge a bit. We were in Vis, and so it was a no-brainer to go to a seafood restaurant called Pojoda which had came highly recommended to us by three different sources – our guidebook, the owner of the apartment we rented there, and our friends who had been sailing in Croatia recently. I don’t think I’d ever had a single restaurant recommended to me that many times, so it seemed like a safe bet.

Unfortunately, though, we weren’t the only ones to have been given this hot tip. When we arrived on the special day at 8:30 sans reservation we found the place bursting at the seams with about eighty loud, inebriated Austrians who had invaded the sleepy town to race in a regatta the next day. "Come back in an hour and I might find you something," a harassed-looking waiter told us, practically shouting to be heard above a chorus of drunken singing.

Manuel was convinced we should go somewhere else (which is pretty much his standard response where drunk Austrians are concerned), but I stuck to my guns; I was convinced we would regret it if we did. So we returned in an hour and the same waiter, seeing our look of despair when we realized the sailors hadn’t even finished their main courses yet, cleared off a small service table near the door and told us that if we didn’t mind the draft we could eat there. So hungry we probably would have sat on the floor if asked, we agreed.

Everyone had instructed us to order Pojoda’s grilled fish – some of the best in Croatia, we were told – which we did, choosing our own gleaming (and expensive) specimens from a large platter overflowing with bream, grouper and bass.  For our first courses the restaurant offered a range of Italian-style primi piatti to choose from, so I asked for a bowl of of spaghetti frutti di mare and Manuel got the risotto nero, which, for the record, he only reluctantly agreed to after I convinced him we shouldn’t both order the same thing.

I’ll tell you now, the fish was really good. It was crisp in all the right places, moist in the rest, and couldn’t have tasted sweeter and fresher if they had gone out to catch it while we waited. If you’ve never sat a few yards from the sea and eaten a whole fresh fish rubbed with olive oil, salt and garlic and quickly grilled over a live wood fire, you’re missing one of life’s great pleasures. At any other restaurant, at any other time, it would have made for a supremely memorable meal, the kind of meal we might recall fondly a few years down the line, not remembering the exact flavors but just the feeling of wholesomeness that lingers after enjoying such simple, beautiful food. Unfortunately at this meal it was a huge letdown. But then, whatever followed that spaghetti would have been.

I can tell you what was in it, but I don’t think I can adequately convey just how good it was. That tangle of chewy pasta, tangy with wine, slick with olive oil and hiding a treasure trove of langoustines and briny, tightly-curled shrimp in its folds, was not only in a class by itself, but an entire galaxy. It was salty and garlicky and tasted like I would imagine seafood-flavored crack might taste, if they ever invented such a thing. It was nothing extravagant, nothing novel or daring – it was just perfect in every way. I sat there dumbfounded, almost unable to speak, suddenly oblivious to the draft from the door and the roar of the drunk sailors in the room behind us – and, for that matter, my poor sulking husband, whose risotto tasted like chalk by comparison and who has still not forgiven me for talking him into ordering it. 

I wish I could give you a recipe for that pasta. I even questioned the waiter for ten minutes when he came to collect my licked-clean bowl, just to make sure I had correctly deciphered what was in it. The ingredients were obvious, in fact – pasta, garlic, wine, oil, a variety of whole, unpeeled shellfish – but the truth is I still don’t know what made it so delicious. Perhaps it was the sweet, fresh langoustines pulled from those clean Adriatic waters that morning; perhaps it was the skill of the chef who learned the art of perfect pasta from his Italian grandmother. Or perhaps it was just a fluke, a happy accident that even the same cook with the same ingredients wouldn’t be able to reproduce again. All I know is that it was something I couldn’t even come close to replicating when I gave it a shot in my own kitchen a week or so later, either the first, second or third time I tried.

So I offer you this recipe instead. It was another fabulous, simple shellfish dish we ate in Croatia, a pungent, messy pile of langoustines (or prawns), garlic, tomatoes and wine that simply begs for you to dig in with your bare hands and enjoy with unbridled gusto. It admittedly didn’t have quite the effect on me that the seafood spaghetti did, but by any other yardstick it would have been one of the highlights of our trip. And even taking that mythical spaghetti into account, I’d go so far as to say that a bowl of seafood doesn’t get much better than this… even if by objective counts it did only take second place.

Scampi Buzara (Skampi na Buzaru)

Despite the Italian-sounding name of this dish, it is apparently a native Croatian preparation. Succulent, shell-on langoustines quickly simmered in a heady mixture of olive oil, garlic, wine, tomatoes and breadcrumbs is a ubiquitous dish along the country’s whole Adriatic coast, and ranged from good to excellent everywhere we tried it. While it’s pretty straightforward to make at home, there is one thing that is crucial to its success. Whatever you do, please don’t even think about substituting pre-peeled shrimp for the head-on scampi or prawns in this recipe – the depth of flavor will be nowhere near what it should be. If you can’t find whole head-on shellfish, come back to this recipe when you can.
Serves: 2-4

1/2 cup (125ml) extra virgin olive oil
generous handful fresh bread crumbs, preferably from sourdough bread
2 tablespoons garlic, coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
3-4 canned plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 1/2 cups (375ml) dry white wine
salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
2 lbs. (1 kg) fresh raw scampi (langoustines), or large prawns, with heads and shells (even medium-sized shrimp will do, as long as they’re in the shell)
lemon wedges, for serving

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and fry the breadcrumbs until they start to turn golden brown. Add the garlic, parsley, and tomatoes and fry 3-4 minutes more. Add the wine, salt and pepper and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the scampi, cover and cook, tossing them frequently to insure everything is well coated with sauce, until they’ve all turned pink and the sauce has slightly thickened, about 10 more minutes. Correct the seasoning, if necessary. Serve in deep bowls with lemon wedges, plenty of bread to mop up the sauce, and napkins.