My Goals

  • Seafood flavor in every bite

  • Tender, juicy shrimp

  • Balanced background flavors

A warm stew of creamy cannellini beans infused with garlic and herbs such as sage or rosemary and brightened with tomatoes is deeply satisfying winter fare. But recently I came across a dish making the rounds on cooking blogs that pairs the beans with shrimp and grassy, aromatic basil, a combination that gives the stew a lighter, more summery feel. Most of the recipes go something like this: Warm several cups of cooked beans in olive oil with a little of their cooking liquid. Meanwhile, sear a pound of shrimp separately, sauté some onion and garlic, and stir in chopped tomatoes. Add the shrimp and shredded fresh basil, and spoon the mixture over the warmed beans.

We started by sampling several recipes that pair shrimp and cannellini beans but found that the flavors of the two never really melded. We could do better.

I loved the sweet-savory pop of flavor from the shrimp in these versions, but that flavor was confined to the shrimp themselves rather than integrated into the dish. I wanted to bolster that seafood flavor so that it permeated the beans, too. I also wanted the dish to be fast, so I decided from the outset to use a couple of cans of cannellini beans rather than dried beans. Since it wasn’t yet tomato season, I also determined that I would use canned tomatoes instead of the fresh ones that many recipes called for. For ease, and because they maintain their shape due to the addition of calcium chloride, I would use the diced kind.

For simplicity, we started with canned cannellini beans and canned diced tomatoes, which ensure rich, full tomato flavor even in the off-season.

My next decision was to borrow a trick from our Shrimp Scampi recipe and make a 10-minute concentrated stock from the shrimp shells, which are packed with the savory compounds we associate with shrimp flavor. This required nothing more than browning the shells in oil (which further boosts the flavor they contribute), simmering them in a little bit of water, and straining them before discarding them. I then warmed the beans in this shrimpy liquid for a few minutes.

This change helped make the dish seem more integrated, but I wanted still more complex seafood flavor. The fix was threefold. First, in the same pan I’d used to make the stock, I sautéed two minced anchovies along with other simple aromatics and seasonings; it’s an ingredient we often turn to when we want to add deep savoriness to dishes both seafood and otherwise. Second, I added the shrimp stock back to the pan along with the canned tomatoes and then simmered the beans in this mixture for about 20 minutes, which not only concentrated the seafood flavor even more but also helped meld all the flavors. Third, instead of searing the shrimp separately, I poached them—brined first to season them and help them stay juicy—in the bean mixture over low heat during the final few minutes of cooking. The shrimp flavored the beans, and the beans also insulated the shrimp from direct heat so that they stayed plump and moist.

The best way to infuse our dish with complex shrimp flavor was to make a quick, concentrated stock from the shrimp shells and then simmer the beans in it.

I freshened up the stew’s rich seafood flavor with a bit of lemon zest and juice and made one final tweak: adding the liquid from one can of beans, which contained just enough starchy body so that the stew’s consistency was lightly thickened and almost creamy—ideal for eating from a spoon or scooping up with a piece of crusty bread.

Deeply flavorful and on the table in less than half an hour, this was the kind of quick dinner I could whip up on a weeknight and the kind I want to tuck into on a lazy Sunday—in the summer yes, but in the winter, too.

Keys to Success

  • Seafood flavor in every bite

    Making a quick, concentrated shrimp stock with the shells and using it to simmer the beans ensures that shrimp flavor permeates the whole dish. Cooking the shrimp with the beans and adding minced anchovies further enhance the savory flavor.
  • Tender, juicy shrimp

    Briefly brining the shrimp seasons them and ensures that they stay plump. Cooking them on top of the beans over low heat buffers them from the direct heat, so they cook gently.
  • Balanced background flavors

    Depth from simple aromatics such as garlic and onion, a bit of heat from red pepper flakes, and freshness from tomatoes, basil, and both lemon zest and juice give the stew savory backbone, brightness, and complexity.