Shrimp is a weeknight cook’s BFF. For this recipe, I can have the shrimp coated in a marinade and threaded on skewers in the time it takes the water to boil for the orzo. The orzo takes 9 minutes to cook and the shrimp takes 4 minutes to grill. Then all you have to do is smash some olives—even faster than chopping—and season the orzo. But the important thing is, it will look like you really tried.
How to Shop for Shrimp
When you’re shopping for shrimp, the size will be listed by how many pieces you’re likely to find per pound. This recipe calls for 16/20 shrimp—also called extra jumbo—which means there will be 16 to 20 shrimp per pound. It’s a nicely sized shrimp for threading on skewers. For reference, small shrimp is listed as 51/60, and colossal shrimp is U/15, which means you’ll get under 15 shrimp per pound.
Once you’ve picked a size, consider the quality: Don’t purchase or use shrimp that is grainy, mushy, opaque, or smells like ammonia. Raw shrimp should be firm, translucent, and smell mildly like the sea.
Peel and Devein the Shrimp
Shrimp shells contain a lot of flavor, so you can cook them in their shells and peel them as you eat. Some people choose to remove the shells but not the tail, for presentation. For this recipe, I think it’s best to do the peeling up front: you won’t have to touch the spicy harissa to eat the shrimp, and it’s easier to thread them onto the skewers unshelled.
Tips for Grilling Shrimp
Shrimp cooks fast. They are on and off the grill in about 4 minutes. The key is to make sure your skewers are ready to go. If you’re using metal skewers, great! Just thread them with the shrimp in even batches—2 to 4 shrimp per skewer, depending on their length. Slide the skewer through both the top and bottom to form a C shape.
If you have wooden or bamboo skewers, they need to be soaked in water for at least 20 minutes so that they don’t catch on fire on the grill. Place the skewers in a rimmed pan wide enough to lay them flat and cover with water.
Soak, drain, and freeze the skewers. They’ll always be ready for you!
Shrimp should be grilled over high, direct heat. They’re ready when they’re firm and opaque. They’ll get rubbery when overcooked.
What Is Harissa?
The marinade for the shrimp is made with pantry staples plus harissa for its spicy, fragrant kick.
Harissa is a spicy chili paste from North Africa, a common condiment used in Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. It’s made with hot chili peppers, garlic, and olive oil, and it often has roasted bell peppers, tomato paste, and coriander. It’s frequently served with roasted meats, seafood, vegetables, and egg dishes.
You can find harissa as a powdered spice blend, a paste in a tube, or in a jar—I use the latter. Some brands sell both spicy and mild versions. I went for spicy, but the shrimp will still showcase the beautiful flavors of harissa if you prefer mild.
The framework of this recipe—toss a protein in sauce and serve it on a starch—makes it easy to use substitutions:
- Cubes of swordfish would work well as a substitute in the seafood realm. Strips of thin chicken cutlets threaded onto the skewers also work.
- Couscous would be a great swap for the orzo, but any short pasta would work. You could even use white or brown rice.
- The flavor of turmeric for the orzo can be approximated with curry powder, which often contains turmeric. You could use 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin for a nod to the earthy flavor though you won’t have the yellow hue.
- Large, mild green olives like Picholine or Castelvetrano are delicious, but pitted Spanish olives will also deliver a briny note. Use a scant cup because Spanish olives are more full-flavored and saltier.