You’ll love this recipe for its blend of shrimp with tender orzo, creamy feta and tomatoes, and soft spinach. It’s also easy to make and reheats very well.
But I’ve found that most versions on the web use way too much orzo, up to a pound. If you want to stretch this recipe a long way for a larger crowd, that’s fine, but even so, the ratio of orzo to the shrimp, spinach, and other ingredients is way too high. The use of feta cheese is excessive.
One of my biggest pet peeves is the overuse of cheeses to smother a dish. While cheese is a great flavor enhancer, it should complement a dish, not overpower it. And don’t even get me started on Mexican food that comes absolutely smothered in monterey jack cheese! But enough said…
In this version, the recipe is all about the shrimp. It uses only one cup of uncooked orzo, which is less than half a pound. I also up the spinach factor, so you can get a healthy serving of vegetables. The addition of some lemon zest adds some brightness to the dish.
You can buy frozen chopped spinach and squeeze the water out of it, or use fresh spinach. In under five minutes, it’s pretty easy to wilt about a pound of spinach, and while the frozen route is a timesaver, there is nothing like fresh ingredients.
To wilt your spinach, just get out a straight edged sauté pan or rondeau (large, straight sided pan used for braising and a little more shallow than a stock pot), the wider the better. Add no more than a quarter cup of good olive oil, and bring it up to medium high heat. Start adding in your fresh spinach one handful at a time. Don’t add in each additional handful until the first handful has wilted. Season with salt and pepper as you go, and once all the spinach has wilted, turn off the heat and let it cool. Then, squeeze out any excess water. If you want to make it even easier, squeeze the spinach double wrapped in some cheesecloth, or using a flour cloth towel sack, bundling it up inside and twisting it closed at the top, and squeezing.
Another shortcut you can take, instead of sautéing the shrimp, is simply cooking the shrimp gently in the tomato sauce. Then finish off the cooking as the entire dish bakes. While I prefer not to take shortcuts as they reduce the flavors in the dish, this option does save some time and cleanup.
One shortcut I do recommend is using garlic confit. You’ll find the recipe in the link, and if you make a batch of several heads of garlic ahead of time, this can be a huge timesaver as well as flavor enhancer for all your dishes that require garlic.
Preferably, if you go with sauteing the shrimp, do it in batches if necessary. You want the shrimp to brown and not steam. If you crowd the pan from the get-go, you’ll cool it down to quickly and your shrimp will simply pinken up and steam, but not get the nice brown caramelization which adds extra flavor.
And don’t forget to properly deglaze or clean your pan. This is a crucial technique when working with any kind or protein. You can use wine, stock or water. I’ve used water in this dish just to keep it simple, but white wine would work well here too. After you’ve removed the shrimp, there should be some brown bits left in the bottom of the pan. Add the liquid while the pan is still hot, scrape up the brown bits as it sizzles, and cook that water or liquid down to just a tablespoon or two. Then add this back to your shrimp and mix it into the sauce when you prepare the dish. This is serious flavor.
I like to cook the orzo a minute or two short of done. The orzo will finish cooking in the sauce and absorb some of the flavor of the tomato sauce.
Finally, you can prepare this dish a day ahead with the exception of the shrimp, then assemble it all on the day you plan to bake it. Just be sure to bake at least 20-30 minutes until bubbly hot if starting cold. If you assemble and bake everything while it’s just freshly prepared, your cook time will be considerably shorter-probably ten to fifteen minutes for the final dish.
- 1 cup uncooked orzo
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 pounds shrimp preferably 21 to 25 per pound, shelled and deveined
- 2 ounce twelve boxes chopped tomatoes preferably San Marzano or Pomi, 12
- tablespoon four cloves garlic or 1garlic confit
- 1 teaspoon crushed pepper flakes
- 1/2 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
- 1 pound fresh or or 2 ten oz boxes frozen spinach 10
- 1/4 pound feta cheese crumbled
- 1/2 cup Kalamata olives halved
- 2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
- Cook orzo to al dente, drain, coat with a quarter cup of the olive oil and set aside.
- Sauté garlic gently in 1/4 cup olive oil, or if using garlic confit, add tomatoes directly with garlic confit and 1/4 cup of the oil. Add pepper flakes and lemon zest to sauce.
- Let sauce simmer 10 minutes, then add to orzo and mix well.
- Season and sauté shrimp in a medium high heat pan, in batches if necessary to not crowd shrimp. Just brown shrimp, they will finish cooking in second step. Remove from pan and use a little water or stock to remove any browned bits from hot pan. Set aside.
- Prepare frozen spinach by squeezing out any excess water. If using fresh spinach, sauté in a 1/4 cup of the olive oil, adding in portions by the handful until the whole pound is wilted down. Allow to cool and squeeze out water.
- Line the bottom of a 3.5 quart of pyrex dish or Dutch oven with the spinach.
- Place orzo and tomato sauce mix on top.
- Gently nestle in the browned shrimp, shrimp will finish cooking in oven.
- Sprinkle the crumbled feta cheese on top.
- Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until bubbly and serve with freshly chopped parsley on top.