Big Little Recipes

Don’t Throw Out Those Shrimp Shells. Use Them to Make This Perfect Pasta.

This Big Little Recipe is spicy, saucy, and super savory.

May 31, 2022

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. That means five ingredients or fewer—not including water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (like oil and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Inspired by the column, the Big Little Recipes cookbook is available now.

Between you and me, when I started this column just over four years ago, I was worried I would run out of ideas. How many dishes could we possibly make with five or fewer ingredients?

But it turned out: hundreds. We made the garlickiest, butteriest pasta. We made marinated chicken that wouldn’t dare dry out. We made peanut butter cookies without any measuring cups or spoons.

And this week, we’re making spicy, tomatoey shrimp spaghetti, which will be my last Big Little Recipe (but don't worry—we're bringing back some of our greatest hits right after this). Fittingly, it includes a handful of the tips and tricks I’ve learned to love, so before I get all mushy, let’s break it down:

It uses shrimp two ways. Because why pay more to get less? First, make sure your shrimp still have the shells and tails on them when you buy them, and then peel them at home. Takes a few minutes, sure, but turn on a podcast. Toss the shells in a pot, add water, and let that simmer into a briny, savory stock. This is where the pasta will cook, then that liquid gold will bolster our sauce.

It lets your kitchen lead the way. Only you can tell me what’s in your pantry. I like long noodles here, like spaghetti or bucatini, but if all you have is rigatoni, great. When it comes to chile paste, I tried—and adored—crushed Calabrian, gochujang, and harissa in my tests. What’s in your fridge door?

It skips a lot of ingredients that you might be tempted to add. But don’t. Don’t add Parmesan or lemon or garlic or onion or whatever it is you’re about to suggest. Instead, lean on the chile paste for breadth (the harissa in my fridge, from NY Shuk, has preserved lemon, garlic, and warm spices).

It doesn’t need a side dish. Jammy tomatoes plus a windowsill’s worth of basil offer all the vegetal elements I crave, especially on a weeknight. Which means you can plop this on the table and call it a day. It doesn’t need plates either. I like to eat this straight out of the skillet, hunched over the table.

I hope you’ll keep making Big Little Recipes, both the ones from the column and the ones from the cookbook. But also the ones we don’t think of as “recipes,” even though we look forward to them every day.

The warm English muffin, smeared with salted butter, that you rush-thawed in the microwave, half-burnt in the toaster, then ate in 3 minutes, standing over the kitchen sink, watching the coffee drip, drip, drip.

This? This old thing? It’s been right in front of us the whole time.

Stay tuned! Up next, we’re bringing back some of our greatest hits from the column over the years. If you have an all-time favorite, let us know in the comments below.
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Put down those long grocery lists. Inspired by the award-winning column, our Big Little Recipes cookbook is minimalism at its best: few ingredients, tons of flavor.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • LadyR
  • Diana Maureen Sandberg
    Diana Maureen Sandberg
  • jodyrah
  • Alvaro
  • Pen
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


LadyR June 20, 2022
Some of you might enjoy this recipe in my gourmet cooking column (scroll down at the link; if it doesn't open, paste into your browser)

Carolyne Lederer-Ralston (in Canada) Lady R
Diana M. June 8, 2022
This is utterly fabulous. My digestion can't take too much spice, so we used about half the harissa, and the hint of spicy was just right for me. I thought the quantity of basil would overwhelm the other flavours but it did not. My dear husband has taken on cooking duties since the long Covid got me (can't stand up long enough to cook); it's been a journey for us both. He really appreciated how simple this recipe is, and how outstanding the result.
jodyrah June 4, 2022
This is a keeper, thanks. I only had a 1/2 pint of cherubs. I supplemented with a bag of (drained and skinned) oven roasted tomatoes. I would definitely do this again. The oven roasted were sweet and soft. A nice compliment with the basil.
Alvaro June 1, 2022
Looks and sounds delicious
Pen June 1, 2022
Wonderful recipe. But with this...and many shrimp recipes...I find it difficult to politely eat the shrimp. Do I dig in with my fingers and grab the tail? Do I try to cut off the tail (only to have it disappear into the sauce) .Or do I eat it, which is not my preference. Personally, I take it off when I prepare a recipe, but maybe I am missing something here.
Noodler June 4, 2022
Chopsticks will work easily to pick up the shrimp and eat in two bites, leaving the tail in your chopsticks.
Arthur J. June 1, 2022
Saving shrimp shells. Saving animal fat. Conserving FLAVOR denotes a higher awareness of the cooking process. Being more “conscious” in the kitchen means better food. Better food means a better life for you and those around you. One should think about what they’re doing in the kitchen. Kitchen mindfulness, food awareness, all good.
Iggy504 June 1, 2022
I've long used shrimp shells to make a seafood stock. But awhile back I started using just the shells, omitting the heads. I just found the stock sometimes would be too murky, and even occasionally just off tasting with the heads included. So now I just use the shells and my stocks are consistently clean and brightly shrimp-flavored. No more swamp water.
Patricia E. May 31, 2022
I have always used the shrimp shells to make a stock to make a bisque with. I think this pasta water, even with the salt added, could be reduced more and used to make a bisque? Could be too salty? I like this pasta recipe and have the shrimp thawing to make it tonight. I agree garlic would be a good addition, garlic always makes it better!!
2tattered May 31, 2022
Sounds great, except for the cherry tomatoes. After 20+ years of trying to cook with them, I’ve given up. They’re only worth eating raw. Cooked, the skins are tough and the seeds are obnoxious. I’ll make this, but I’ll use my own canned tomatoes in winter, and nice ripe (peeled and seeded) tomatoes in summer.
Steve P. May 31, 2022
And I've got a bagful of frozen shrimp shells in search of a recipe. This sounds perfect!
asmithflorida May 31, 2022
What can I use instead of something spicy? I don't like anything spicy!
Dan F. May 31, 2022
How about curry paste or curry powder? Maybe some tomato paste and finely chopped red (or other color) peppers? If you do any of these, cook them in the pan before you add the shrimp.
Jim May 31, 2022
What? No garlic? I'd drop in at least one clove, chopped fine. Just to keep us grounded. :o))
Unless you have a reason to omit them?
Bill H. May 31, 2022
As Emma has noted, It's the whole premise behind Big Little Recipes ... 5 ingredients or less (not counting water, salt, pepper and a fat like butter). Add a clove of garlic and that makes 6.
Diane S. May 31, 2022
Haha but garlic makes everything taste better lol..also why don’t you remove the shell tails it’s so much easier to eat without worrying that you’re going to get a shell in your mouth. I will be trying this tomorrow!! Thanks so much, I love Food52!!!
jodyrah June 4, 2022
I sautéed 8-10 smashed garlic cloves to flavor the (extra) butter then removed. Used U-15 gulf shrimp, cutting them in 1/2 lengthwise, seasoned with salt/pepper. Much easier to eat.