My husband and I love Greek food. This dish is based on one of our favorite appetizers in a Greek restaurant we frequent. They call it Shrimp Saganaki. The bold, earthy tastes of an unpretentious people steeped in an ancient culture stand out in their cooking. This dish came about one Sunday when I was foraging in my kitchen for something to make for dinner. Now how about these ingredients for foraging? Shrimp, feta cheese, fresh basil and tomatoes. Now there is one ingredient that sort of sneaks in. Since I wanted this to be an entrée, it needed to be bulked up. To do this, I put the entire dish on a bed of, dare I say it, orzo! This is a quick to make dish that has loads of flavor.
Feta, whose name means slice, is an interesting cheese. While the origin is thought to be Greek, several other countries in the area claim it. Originally it was made with unpasteurized sheep or goat’s milk or a combination of both by shepherds. Today, for commercial purposes, it is most often made with pasteurized cow’s milk. The curdled milk with rennet is drained in a mold or cloth bag, after which it is cut into slices that are usually square. It is then salted and cured in a brine mixture of water or whey and packed in barrels for several months which is sometimes why it is referred to as “pickled cheese”. The cheese is white, compact, salty with a bit of a grainy texture and can range from firm to semisoft with a mild or sharp taste.
Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Denmark and France make a product called feta. However, since 2002 it has been a protected designation of origin produce by the European Union which means only the cheeses produced in the mainland or the island of Lesvos using traditional methods and being made with sheep’s milk or a mixture of sheep’s and goats’ milk of up to 30% can be labeled “feta’.
I buy feta in one piece and crumble it myself. I always feel like the pre-crumbled feta consist of “floor sweepings”.Shrimp is sold by the number of shrimp in a pound. Thus 21 to 30 count has approximately that many shrimp in a pound. I usually buy them in the shell as I think they have more flavor if they are peeled just before using. I also prefer wild caught as opposed to farm raised for their flavor and especially texture. I find that the farm raised have a bit of a mushy texture where the wild caught are more firm. Half the weight of the shrimp is lost when peeling, so always double the weight needed to allow for peeling. When peeling shrimp it is necessary to devein them. Much is made of the difficulty of deveining shrimp but if you follow the photos you will see it isn’t a problem.
Shrimp are found in warm water and cold water. As a general rule, the colder the water the smaller the shrimp. Although there are variances here is a chart of sizes:
Colossal – 10 or less
Jumbo – 11 to 15
Extra-Large – 16 to 20
Large – 21 to 30
Medium – 31 to 35
Small – 36 to 45
Miniature – about 100
I have never seen the miniatures with shell on. Fortunately, they come shelled (how lucky is that?). These are usually used for shrimp salad and popcorn shrimp.
Do not confuse prawns and shrimp. Although often listed as shrimp, prawns are a species on their own. One last shrimp note. Although scampi are referred to as shrimp on many menus, it is actually the Italian name for the tail portion of a number of lobsterettes with the best known being the Dublin Bay. The name scampi on American menus is often large shrimp butterflied and sautéed in garlic butter.
The shrimp in the recipe is put into the casserole raw as the length of time required to cook the casserole is sufficient to finish the shrimp. Using cooked shrimp would overcook the shrimp making them rubbery.
Orzo is a rice shaped pasta. My husband, who is not wild about rice, told me how much he “enjoyed this rice”. I’m not sure if I ever told him it was pasta! He also enjoys this as a side dish by omitting the shrimp.
Because the basil in the casserole part of the recipe is fresh I purposely bury it under other ingredients to keep it from drying out as that would undo its flavor. You will notice in the crumbs I use dried basil. It just depends upon the flavor you are going for as to where you use which. In any case, if using fresh herbs when baking, do not put them to top, as the heat will just dry them out. You might as well just sprinkle dried herbs on and save the money.
I usually have the Crumb Topping made up (without the oil) in the freezer for a quick topping for casseroles, tomatoes, etc.
This recipe makes two individual portions. It can easily be scaled up for more.
1/3 cup raw orzo
12 to 14 raw, unpeeled shrimp 21 to 30
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
1 cup chopped tomatoes – about 1 large tomato
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
4 ounces feta
6 tablespoons white wine
4 tablespoons water
Peel and devein the shrimp; set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray casseroles with cooking spray.
Place half the orzo in each casserole. Layer half the shrimp,basil and tomatoes in each dish. Salt (sparingly as the feta is salty) and pepper this layer. Top each with half the feta. Add 3 tablespoons wine and 2 tablespoons water to each casserole.
2/3 cup dried breadcrumbs
1/3 cup grated sharp asiago
1 teaspoon dried oregno
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/8 teaspoon (scant) garlic powder
3 tablespoons olive oil
Combine the topping ingredients. Divide equally between the casseroles. Place in a baking pan and bake for 35 to 40 minutes. About 20 to 25 minutes into the baking, cover loosely with foil if the crumbs are browning too quickly.