This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on January 11, 2006
I am the daughter of a woman for whom life holds no greater culinary pleasure than a shrimp – butterflied, battered, and crisply fried.
Add a wedge of lemon, a little tartar sauce and some fried potatoes and my mom makes little whimpering noises of happiness. I learned from her early on that shrimps are special, and they are still one of the first things I eat when we head down to our cottage in Apalachicola, on the Gulf Coast of Florida.
My husband may fantasize about platters of Apalachicola’s plumpest oysters on the half shell, but give me a fried shrimp basket every time.
Although shrimp were an expensive luxury when I was a kid – reserved for parties or fancy restaurants – these days they are much more accessible – cheaper and abundant, available in every grocery store. But they are not, I think, as tasty as the shrimp of yore, and they aren’t as good for us either.
Over my desk in Bloomington is a bumper sticker I picked up in Apalachicola that says “Friends don’t let friends eat imported shrimp” and that, in a nutshell, is the problem. We’re almost all eating imported shrimp these days – nearly 90 percent of the shrimp eaten by Americans comes from Asia (China, Thailand, Vietnam) or Latin America.And most of that imported shrimp is the product of industrial shrimp farming, where shrimp are raised in crowded conditions, swimming in or feeding on water laced with pesticides, antibiotics and anti-fungal preparations. When we eat those shrimp, we eat all the chemicals they ingest.
Time was when the shrimp in the United States were caught here at home by shrimpers – fishermen who took their boats out to the seas or the bays, returning home laden with the squirming pink, translucent white, or silvery gray shellfish. Apalachicola, like so many towns along the Gulf of Mexico, was not so long ago a thriving fishing village, its working waterfront crowded with shrimp boats.
Today, it’s a different matter. Many Gulf shrimpers have given up, victim most recently of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but even before that squeezed out by the regulations that limit when and how they bring in their catch, by the high prices of fuel, by the pressure from developers to get out of the way so seaside land can be turned into waterview condominiums, and by the price competition that comes from cheap imported shrimp. It’s probably less expensive right here in Apalachicola to eat shrimp farmed in Thailand than it is to buy the real deal fresh off the boats coming into the bay.
And oh, what a pity that is. There is no imported farmed shrimp that can compete for taste and texture with a wild gulf shrimp. They are firm and fresh and briny before they are cooked – delicately crisp and sweet after.
The key to cooking shrimp is to do it really, really fast. Just as soon as it turns pink it is done; cook it longer and it approaches rubber. A butterflied shrimp (with the back deeply split so the shrimp almost opens flat, kind of like a marine Rorschach test) cooks even faster. So use brief, high heat – stir-frying, blanching, steaming, deep frying. If you want shrimp in your stews or casseroles, add it last.
But if you are going to go to the trouble of buying and cooking shrimp, find out where they come from. American shrimpers are convinced that if you know the difference, you’d be willing to pay a little more for what they are calling now Wild American Shrimp, and it is truly worth the extra money. So ask before you buy. Friends really shouldn’t let friends eat imported shrimp!
I don’t know where this recipe originated, but it came to me by way of my friend Ronnie, who got it from her friend Nancy.
2 pounds medium to large Gulf shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 lemon, sliced very thinly
1 medium red onion, sliced very thinly
2 tablespoons chopped pimento
1/2 cup pitted, chopped ripe or kalamata olives (optional)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 crumbled bay leaf
Dash of cayenne or red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Boil shrimp in large pot of well-salted water (plain salted water is fine, or you can add lemons, peppercorns and herbs to taste, or use seafood boil seasoning.) Cook for a minute or two (no more than three!) and drain as soon as shrimp turn opaque. Chill immediately.
In a bowl, combine lemon, onion, pimento, and olives and toss well.
In a separate bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients. Add to lemons and onions, and pour dressing over shrimp. Chill about three hours (longer is OK, but eventually shrimp will get a bit chewier.)
Serve with toothpicks or cocktail forks, or plate as a first course.
There are fancier shrimp dishes you could make, but this one is a classic and easy as can be. Some people swear by broiling the shrimp, but I find I can control the cooking better if I saute them. America’s Test Kitchen suggests that you can get a better sear on shrimp (since they don’t stay in a pan long enough to get it from the high heat) if you sprinkle them with a bit of sugar before adding them to the pan, and they are right,
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 pounds large uncooked shrimp, peeled, deveined, and butterflied
1/8 teaspoon sugar
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
zest of one lemon
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon dry white wine or vermouth
1 pound linguine, cooked according to package directions, or freshly cooked rice
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Dry the shrimp and season with salt, pepper and sugar. Heat half the oil in a nonstick skillet until smoking. Add half the shrimp, cook until pink and seared, no more than 2 minutes. Remove from pan and repeat with second half of shrimp.
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in skillet and saute garlic until softened. Do not allow to brown!! Add lemon juice, zest, parsley, wine and pepper flakes. Remove from heat and whisk in remaining butter. Toss shrimp with sauce (staying off the heat – you don’t want them to cook any more) and serve over pasta or rice.
Serves six as a first course, four as a main course.
A Local Connection
The Butcher’s Block in Bloomington sells “fresh fight” Gulf shrimp from both Mississippi and Alabama on a regular basis. The shop can even get shrimp with the heads still attached by special order. The shrimp arrive Thursday afternoons for weekend sale. Call 336-6328