As I have mentioned before, Rome is not really risotto country. But there is at least one risotto dish that appears on almost every menu in town: risotto alla crema di scampi, or risotto with crayfish (or shrimp) purée. It is one of my favorite risotti, but I hadn’t had it since leaving Rome four years ago. As I pondered what to make for dinner tonight, I decided it was time to renew my acquaintance with this old friend.
This risotto is a bit more involved than your average risotto and, for this reason, is usually served on special occasions. The complication comes in preparing the fumetto di scampi, or shrimp fumet and the crema di scampi or shrimp purée. Otherwise, it operates like any other risotto. Scampi are actually crayfish but since shrimp are so much more common, I have devised this recipe for using shrimp. But if you can find crayfish, by all means use them; the dish will be that much more flavorful and authentic.
To make enough risotto for 4 people, begin by making the fumetto di scampi: shell about 250g (or a half pound) shrimp. Take the shells (and heads if you have them) and put them in a saucepan with one liter (1 qt.) of water, a splash of white wine, a pinch of salt and the usual odori: a small onion, a carrot and a stick of celery, cut up into chunks, along with a few sprigs of parsley. Simmer for about 20 minutes.
Then make the crema di scampi: sauté a lightly crushed garlic clove in a bit of olive oil. When the garlic just begins to give off aroma, add the shrimp and sauté them as well. When the shrimp have just turned pink, add a splash a brandy and allow it to evaporate. (Some recipes call for you to set light to the brandy.) If you like, remove a few shrimp—enough for one or two shrimp per person—from the skillet as garnish. Then add 200g of crushed canned tomatoes or passata di pomodoro and a ladleful of the fumetto, and simmer for about 20 minutes. Transfer this shrimp and tomato mixture to a blender, add 200ml of cream and blend on the highest setting until you have a very smooth, cream-like purée. Transfer this back to the skillet and allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes more to thicken the crema and concentrate its flavor. Make sure that the puree is well seasoned.
Finally, make a normal risotto in bianco, with 400g of rice, using the usual technique (see the post of the ABCs of making risotto), beginning with a shallot or half a small onion sautéed in olive oil and using the remainder of the fumetto in place of the usual broth. About halfway through the cooking time, add the crema di scampi and continue with the cooking. (You can hold back a bit of the crema for garnish. When the rice is fully cooked, add a dab of butter and proceed to mantecare. Let the risotto rest, covered, for 2 or 3 minutes before serving. If you like, garnish with a spoonful of the crema di scampi, one or two sautéed shrimp and a pinch of finely chopped parsley.
NOTES: This risotto is another ‘new’ dish devised, like penna alla vodka, in the 1970s. And like penne alla vodka, it is based on a mixture of tomato and cream, sometimes called a salsa rosa or ‘pink sauce’. It was apparently quite popular, for a time, for wedding banquets and other special occasions. Its popularity has waned somewhat, but, as I mentioned at the start, it is still a fixture on Roman restaurant menus. And it still makes for an elegant appearance. Fa sempre una bella figura, as they say in Italian: it always makes a good impression.
There are some rather subtle variations in the recipes you can find for this dish. The most important would be the ratio of shrimp to rice, which can range from as high as 8:5 to (as in the recipe above) 1:2. The amount of cream and tomato contained in the shrimp purée can also be reduced down to provide a stronger shrimp taste and less fat; one recipe I’ve seen calls for only 100g of cream and 100g of tomato for 800g of shrimp. If you find this recipe either too mild in flavor or too rich, then you may find this variation more appealing.
Another, more distinct variation calls for sautéeing the shrimp heads and shells to make the crema di scampi, and passing it through a sieve rather than blending it. The shrimp tails are separately sautéed and flambéed and folded into the risotto just before serving.
Finally, I should mention that scampi are not, in fact, shrimp but a kind of Mediterranean langoustine(also known as Dublin Bay prawns) that have a much more assertive flavor than shrimp. If you can find real scampi, of course, this dish will come out that much tastier. Another possibility would be to substitute another crustacean, like crab, either combined with or instead of, shrimp, to make up for the flavor differential. I will be experimenting with variations and updating this post after I do, so stay tuned!