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Eric Akis: Spice things up with a piquant prawn dish for two

Fra diavolo sauce is made with olive oil, garlic, wine, herbs, good canned tomatoes and chilies
Chili-spiced, saucy, garlicky, prawns fra diavolo can be served with or over pasta, polenta or a rice dish. ERIC AKIS

If you like spicy dishes, be a devil and prepare them with fra diavolo, a chili-spiced sauce that can add a pleasing piquant taste to a variety of foods.

In the late 1700s, early 1800s, Fra Diavolo was the nickname of Michele Pezza, who lived in Naples. When Pezza was a boy he survived a life-threatening illness. And back then it was an Italian tradition for children who recovered from an illness like that to be dressed as monks on the second Sunday after Easter for a yearly procession in honour of patron saint, St. Francis of Paola.

According to lore, on one of those occasions Pezza was extremely ill tempered, causing someone to call him “Fra Diavolo,” which in Italian means, “Brother Devil.”

That nickname stuck and Pezza’s reputation for being hot tempered carried on throughout his life. And it appeared to provide him great bravery as an adult when he became a famous guerrilla leader who resisted the French occupation of Naples.

Somewhere along the line fra diavolo also became the name for saucy Italian-style dishes with a hot-chili-spiced flavour. But must sources suggest they were first cooked and given that handle in the New York City area, not Italy, and that there is no direct connection to Pezza, except for them both being fiery in character.

Italian immigrants to New York, who brought their culinary techniques from places such as Naples, were doing the cooking, though. And one of the places they were doing that at was Grotta Azzurra, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s Little Italy, which is said to have served a dish called lobster fra diavolo since 1908. Other New York City restaurants also served variations of the dish and still do.

Fast-forward to 2021 and you’ll find fra diavolo is now being served in Italian restaurants all around North America. And, beyond lobster, it’s also made with other types of seafood, such as shrimp, clams and squid, or a mix of seafood. You’ll also see it made with other types of protein, such as chicken.

When I reviewed myriad recipes for fra diavolo, none were exactly the same. But most had similar ingredients in the sauce, such as olive oil, garlic, wine, herbs, good canned tomatoes or tomato sauce, and chilies, often in the form of dried red pepper flakes.

My delicious version of the dish, which serves two, contains all those things and also seared prawns. Like other types of fra diavolo, you could serve it with or over pasta, polenta or a rice dish, such as pilaf or risotto.

I would call my fra diavolo moderately spiced with red pepper flakes, giving it a warm and inviting level of spiciness that delightfully lingers on the palate. If you want it spicier than that, simply add more red pepper flakes.

Prawns Fra Diavolo for Two

Seared prawns added to a tomato sauce, richly and warmly flavoured with such things as red pepper flakes, garlic, wine, olive oil, butter and herbs. Serve with pasta, polenta or a rice dish, such as pilaf or risotto.

Preparation time: 25 minutes

Cooking time: About 20 minutes

Makes: two servings

1 (14 oz/398 mL) can whole San Marzano tomatoes (see Note 1)

16 medium, or 12 to 14 large, prawns (or shrimp), peeled and deveined (see Note 2)

• salt, to taste

2 Tbsp olive oil

1/3 cup finely diced onion

1 very large garlic clove, minced (about 2 tsp)

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, or to taste

1/4 tsp dried oregano

1/3 cup white wine

1 Tbsp orange juice

2 tsp soft butter

1 to 2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley

5 fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced

Put the canned tomatoes and their sauce in a bowl. Use your fingers to squeezed and finely crush the tomatoes, and then set them aside for now.

Season prawns with salt. Place oil in 10-inch cast iron or other heavy skillet and set over medium-high heat. When oil is very hot, add the prawns and sear 45 seconds. Turn prawns over and cook 45 seconds more, or until bright pink and just cooked through. Remove skillet from the heat. Use tongs to transfer prawns to a plate.

Set the skillet over medium heat and add the onions. Cook and stir onions until softened, about two minutes. Mix in the garlic, red pepper flakes and oregano and cook and stir one minute more.

Add the wine and juice to the skillet, bring to a simmer, and simmer until those liquids are reduced by half. Add the reserved crushed tomatoes to the skillet, bring to a gentle simmer, and then lower the heat to maintain that gentle simmer. Simmer the fra diavolo sauce five minutes. Add the prawns and butter. Heat the prawns in the sauce two to three minutes. Mix in the parsley and basil, and serve.

Note 1: Deep-red San Marzano tomatoes are sold in the canned tomato aisle of most grocery stores and at Italian and specialty food stores. If you can’t find a 14 oz. (398 mL) can of them, buy a 28 oz. (798 mL) can and crush the tomatoes as described in the method. Use half of those tomatoes for this recipe, and freeze the rest for another time.

Note 2: To peel a prawn, hold the end of the tail in one hand and use your other hand to grab onto its swimmerets, the little legs under the shell. Pull off the shell, leaving the very bottom portion of the tail intact. If the prawns were not sold deveined, use a small paring knife to make a lengthwise slit along the back of each prawn. Pull out, or rinse out with cold water, the dark vein, if there is one, pat the prawns dry, and they’re ready to use.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.