The kids had been requesting shrimp, so when I suggested pasta with shrimp for this week, they were eager for the class. And everyone was excited about trying old fashioned strawberry shortcake too, the traditional creation of fresh berries sandwiched between biscuits with clouds of whipped cream that not one person in the room had tasted. But, when I showed up on Monday, there was only one student, and none of the regulars.
I’ve been teaching these classes at a group home that Venice Community Housing (VCH) provides for homeless youth, age 19-24. VCH has several houses and apartment buildings around the west side of Los Angeles and in Venice, some for youth, some for others, and I’ve been teaching at their house for young people in Mar Vista. However, there was an “incident” (never explained) at the house, and 2 of the regular cooking class students were asked to move out. In addition, Kareem had been staying there only until his more permanent placement was ready for him in Venice, and that happened this week too. So, he had moved out. And the spirited young woman decided to prioritize homework. That meant none of our regulars would be there.
Roberto, a slender, shy boy who is very interested in cooking, was the new and only kid to show up. I’d been trying to get the other students to participate in the cooking, but got no takers, except to use a blow torch to brûlée the crème brûlée. Roberto, however, was at my side for the entire class- peeling shrimp, chopping onions, making the biscuits, hulling and slicing strawberries, whipping cream until billowy. Then he got a phone call, and bolted, before the pasta was cooked and sauced, way before time to serve dessert.
That left me alone with a mountain of food, and feeling like an unappreciated caterer. Before I let my mind go too far towards thinking “Is this project a huge waste of time,” I invited the staff to come eat with me. Getting to know them over the freshly prepared meal was an invaluable seminar for me. I’m impressed by these dedicated people who have learned to deal with the erratic lifestyle of these newly housed residents. Clearly, I have as much to learn from the staff and students as I have to share with them. This enterprise is more complex than I had anticipated, and I love it!
Pasta with Shrimp and Cherry Tomatoes
- ½ cup olive oil, plus more for sautéing shrimp
- 4 garlic cloves, flattened and peeled
- 2½ pounds about 8 cups cherry tomatoes or grape tomatoes
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- ¾ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, plus more for shrimp
- Pinch of sugar
- Black pepper
- I bunch fresh spinach leaves, cut into 1” pieces
- 1 pound uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
- Smoked paprika, optional
- 12 ounces to 1 pound pasta, shell or tubular pasta
- Freshly grated Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese
- Fresh basil, sliced, optional
- Heat ½ cup oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook until starting to brown on both sides, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper flakes, sugar and a generous amount of black pepper. Sauté until the tomatoes burst and release their juices and a chunky sauce forms, pressing with a spoon to mash some tomatoes, about 10 minutes. Add the spinach and cook just until wilted, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat.
- Meanwhile, pat shrimp dry. Place in a small bowl, sprinkle with salt, pepper, red pepper flakes and smoked paprika (if using). Set aside.
- Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to the bite. Drain the pasta. Add the pasta to the sauce and cook over medium heat until coated. Transfer to a shallow bowl. Sprinkle generously with grated cheese and toss. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover to keep warm.
- Rinse the skillet and wipe dry. Add enough oil to cover the bottom and heat over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp and sauté until beginning to curl and almost cooked through, watching carefully, about 30 seconds on each side. Arrange shrimp atop the pasta. Garnish with basil and serve, passing more cheese at the table.
- 1 16- ounce basket plus 1 8-ounce basket strawberries, hulled, sliced
- 1/3 cup sugar, or more to taste
- 2 cups all-purpose flour or gluten-free flour blend such as King Arthur Measure for Measure flour
- 3 tablespoons sugar, plus more to sprinkle
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup 1 stick cold unsalted butter, sliced
- ¾ cup milk mixed with 2 teaspoons vinegar, or ¾ cup buttermilk or Kefir with no vinegar
- 1 tablespoon cream or melted butter
- 1 cup cold heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
For the berries:
- Combine the berries and 1/3 cup sugar in a bowl. Toss to blend. Let stand at least 30 minutes to allow juices to form, stirring occasionally. Taste and add more sugar if desired.
For the biscuits:
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cover a baking pan with foil, butter the foil.
- In a large bowl, combine the flour, 3 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Whisk to blend. Add ½ cup cold butter.Squeeze the butter and flour together with finger tips until the texture of a coarse meal. Add the milk and mix with a fork until the dough comes together, adding a little more milk if dry and a little more flour if wet. Gently knead briefly in the bowl to combine all the ingredients.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Pat into a ¾” thick square or rectangle. Cut into 8 squares, cutting straight down without using a sawing motion. Transfer the biscuits to the prepared pan, spacing close together. Brush with cream or melted butter and then sprinkle with a little sugar. Bake the biscuits until they brown and feel firm to the touch, about 20 minutes. Transfer the biscuits to a rack and cool at least 15 minutes.
For the cream:
- Using an electric mixer or large whisk, beat the cream in a large bowl until soft peaks from. Add sugar and vanilla and beat just until incorporated. Refrigerate until ready to use.
- Using a fork or serrated knife, cut the biscuits horizontally in half. Place the bottom halves in bowls. Top with berries and their juices, and then a big spoonful of whipped cream. Top with the biscuit tops. Spoon a little whipped cream on top of each and spoon a few more berries over. Serve right away.