Cooking with lemons

By ANDY CASTILLO

There was a time, perhaps five years ago, when I thought a delicious homemade meal consisted of microwaveable rice, overcooked fish and a bag of steamed vegetables. As a youngster, staple meals were things like peanut butter sandwiches and oatmeal.

Food was fuel.

I attribute my evolution from Kraft mac and cheese aficionado to somewhat proficient home-chef to two life events that took place around the same time. First, after writing for the Recorder for a few years, I moved to Northampton (my hometown) and began filling the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s food pages. After a little while, interviewing experienced home cooks and sitting down with James Beard Foundation Award-winning chefs rubbed off on me — I became inspired to attempt my own culinary experimentation.

The second impetus — perhaps a stronger one: I got married. It’s not that my wife doesn’t like to cook, it’s that she doesn’t have the time to do so. And yet, she wanted home-cooked meals. Who am I to deny that simple pleasure to my life partner?

So, in fits and starts, I learned how to cook — and discovered a passion.

My first attempts in the kitchen were sub-par at best. Then I discovered lemons. Growing up, I’d always wondered why produce departments were so well-stocked with lemons. The piles of fruit seemed excessive. Now I understand — they’re so versatile and streamline recipes.

These days, my kitchen is constantly stocked with lemons. I use them in everything — scones, cupcakes, couscous, tagine and pasta, to name a few uses. The other day, for example, having returned from a week-long vacation in Iceland (it was incredible, by the way, and we saw lava up close), I cooked an incredibly delicious and really easy dinner of lemon-butter scallops, oven-roasted asparagus and Israeli couscous tossed with lemon zest.

The following evening, I followed it up with bow tie pasta and shrimp with a lemon-garlic alfredo sauce. Having camped our way around Iceland in 40 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I can’t put into words how comforting that simple dish tasted.

The savory garlic mingles wonderfully with the lemon’s acidity, and a few pinches of paprika add a hint of heat.

The shrimp adds a seafood flair and the green peas ground the dish with an earthy aftertaste.

Sprinkle a little extra lemon zest and parmesan cheese on top for a visual treat.

Lemon-Garlic Pasta with Shrimp and Green Peas

(As always, these ingredient measurements are arbitrary. I usually cook to taste and then estimate measurements after the fact.)

One lemon

One package bow tie pasta

2 tablespoons butter

32 ounce package raw shrimp (I used frozen shrimp)

Two garlic cloves

2 ounces cream cheese (about ¼ an 8-ounce package)

1/3 cup parmesan cheese

¼ cup pasta water

OIive oil

Two pinches paprika

Basil to taste

Salt and pepper

½ cup peas (I used about ¼ package of frozen peas)

To begin, wash (and defrost if frozen) the shrimp. Cook the pasta in a pot of salted water. Zest and quarter the lemon; mince the garlic. Add a swirl of olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter to a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook for maybe 20 seconds until it’s fragrant. Add the shrimp. Once it’s a little opaque, squeeze in half the lemon juice and cook for another few minutes or so.

Before straining the pasta, add ¼ cup of water from the pot to the shrimp. Shake in a little bit of basil to taste; season with salt and pepper. Strain the pasta and swirl in a little bit of olive oil to prevent it from sticking; set aside. To the shrimp, add the peas.

Cut in at least 2 ounces of cream cheese to taste and simmer for a minute.

Add a few pinches of paprika and add almost all of the lemon zest (save a little for topping).

Once it’s smooth, stir in the parmesan cheese (save a little for serving).

Turn off heat and melt in remaining tablespoon of butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper if desired.

Then, mix in the pasta either in the pan or in a separate container. Serves about four people.

Top with remaining cheese and lemon zest, serve with lemon wedge on the side.

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