In the life of any given classic recipe, you will find instances where it becomes caught in a backwater eddy and becomes a poor, grotesque thing far removed from its heyday, rather much like a fading star of stage and screen who can only find an audience where their celebrity is no more than their name (think Citizen Kane). Many recipes fall subject to this farce simply because their name on a menu is a draw: a pasta prima vera with frozen vegetables, for instance or a steak Diane with cream of mushroom soup. In capable hands classic incarnations can be very good indeed, but more often they’re simply just wretched.
Such was the case for scampi, a commercial standard (with variations) in the U.S. and Europe, but the house recipe we employed at the Warehouse in Oxford was wretched. James Ruffin made the sauce, which consisted of garlic powder, a commercial oil product (Whirl) and the remnants of whatever open bottle of white wine the bartender on duty had available. He’d shake this up and pour it over a dozen medium-sized shrimp arranged in a small circular metal dish, which was cooked by placing in our very hottest broiler. On a busy night, more often than not a scampi order burned because we had so much else to do, but if it was just dried out we’d put more sauce on it and send it out the window. Shrimp are expensive, after all.
To make proper scampi, sauté or broil shrimp in butter with plenty of garlic, add dry white wine, salt and white pepper. Add a jolt of lemon juice, a sprinkling of parsley and serve immediately. Some thicken the sauce with starch, or add scallions, and some people include chopped drained tomatoes. In the end, scampi should be a very simple dish made with good, fresh good, but I’m here to tell you somebody’s bound to fuck up just about anything.