Good eating begins with wild-caught crustaceans
BY NATHALIE DUPREE
Special to the Post and Courier
Fresh, local shrimp is something to dream about, and with the season about to start, a lot of good eating is about to begin.
It's easy to be passionate about Lowcountry shrimp. When cooked properly, they are sweet, tender and succulent. They have the fresh aroma of the sea, with no "fishy" taste or smell. Those who have never eaten wild-caught fresh shrimp before are stunned when they eat them.
Shrimp are born in the ocean, invisible to the naked eye. They ride on top of the waves, inexorably pulled inland to our local waters — the marshes, inlets and tidal creeks. There they sink to the bottom, where they feed and grow until they ride out to the ocean again to breed. As they grow, they develop a flavor dependent to some degree on the food they eat, the depth of where they live, and the water itself.
Traveling down from North Carolina to South Carolina and Georgia, then to Florida and the Gulf states of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, comparing shrimp from different warm-water regions of the South, it is obvious that each of these things — food, water salinity and content, and depth — makes a difference.
As the shrimp grow and head back to the ocean, they live and feed in deeper water, and the water temperature changes as well. As this happens, they develop different flavors from the marsh sweetness to the deep ocean "iodine" flavor. In between are all ranges of flavor, texture and color.
Different people prefer the different stages of the shrimp just as they prefer different sizes. The shrimp that feed in the bayous clearly have a different flavor than those of the Lowcountry. Which shrimp you prefer may, like your taste in coffee, depend on what you are used to, what you grew up with or the depth of your palate.
will not have the depth or range of flavor of a fresh "wild" shrimp, as we call shrimp caught near Southern shores. There is not the diversity of habitat. In addition, our Wild American Shrimp Certification Program ensures they are inspected to meet a high standard of quality and consistency. There is every possibility shrimp from unspecified foreign waters would not only not meet those same standards, but might be fed something alien to our culture.
This foreign shrimp is frequently tasteless, and less than memorable, as evidenced when a very sophisticated journalist recently visited the Lowcountry and had his first South Carolina shrimp. "I never knew what fresh shrimp tasted like before," he said. "I will never forget it."
He wondered why anyone would buy pond-raised shrimp or foreign shrimp when wild American shrimp is available. Why, indeed? It is amazing to me that people spend money on frivolous items or mediocre prepared foods and then refuse to pay the slight extra premium for local shrimp they can dream about.
Purchasing shrimp: Fresh shrimp should smell like the ocean, with no strong odor of ammonia or "fishiness." The meat should be slightly firm to the touch, and not mushy from storage on ice, and the shell shiny. (The shell may have turned brown from exposure to air and is not a concern. To me, that is preferable to one being treated with chemicals to retain the shine and color.)
The three most common species are:
--White shrimp: Firm texture, light, sweet flavor.
--Pink shrimp: Their color, pearly texture and delicate flavor comes from the coral sand off Florida's west coast. It has a pink dot on its head.
--Brown shrimp: A bolder
flavor, resulting from the
nutrient-rich kelp in their diet.
Shells and heads: Shrimp are much better cooked in their shell and then peeled after cooking, so whenever possible, purchase shrimp in the shell. For convenience sake, most people buy shrimp with the heads off. But when heads-on shrimp are available, look for the "whiskers" — if still there, the shrimp is only a few hours old.
The heads make a rich, unctuous stock, and are in themselves tasty, many people sucking them out when cooked as they do crawfish heads.
Frozen and defrosted: Many markets sell shrimp that has been frozen and defrosted and sold on ice. Always check; knowledge is power. They are fine, but it means the buyer should cook the shrimp in a day or two because they have a shorter refrigerator life, and if refrozen will lose some of their flavor and desirable consistency. Better than buying the frozen and already defrosted, ask the market for those that are still frozen, and defrost as needed.
Even frozen wild American shrimp is superior, as it is properly caught and frozen fresh with innovative new techniques. Knowledgeable locals stock up on shrimp in season and freeze them carefully for later use, rather than purchasing out-of-season foreign or pond-raised.
To store: Store fresh, thawed or cooked shrimp 2-3 days at 30-35 degrees in a closed container. (I store on shaved ice inside double plastic bags.)
To freeze shrimp: Spread the shrimp out on a flat,
sided pan. (Reserve any residual water from their purchase.) Freeze the shrimp quickly. Move the recently frozen shrimp to a container and add the residual water and any other water necessary to cover. (I prefer a plastic freezer bag.) Return to the freezer.
Alternatively, place shrimp and water in a plastic bag on a flat surface and freeze. Stack bags in the freezer to store and locate easily. Some people use a milk carton to freeze them. This is fine, but the shrimp are less accessible than the other way.
To defrost: Separate the shrimp as much as possible, to speed thawing. If thawing in the refrigerator, a 5-pound block will take 24-28 hours. If this is too long a wait, thaw under COLD running water in a colander. Do not leave shrimp in standing water, as they will lose color, flavor and nutrients.
Deveining shrimp: Shrimp don't need to be deveined unless they are gritty, or personal preference dictates removal for appearance. (Cook one to be sure the batch is not gritty.) There are special deveining tools that also peel the shrimp. Another method of preparation calls for slitting up the vein with long scissors, removing the vein and leaving the shell intact. This is ideal for broiling or grilling in the shell.
Serving amounts: Raw, headless and unpeeled shrimp — 1/3 pound per serving. Peeled and deveined shrimp — 1/6 pound per serving. Two pounds of raw, headless, unpeeled shrimp equals 1 pound of cooked, peeled and deveined shrimp.
Simple 'boiled' shrimp
The title of this recipe is a misnomer — shrimp should not be boiled, but instead poached. In fact, they are memorable simply done in many ways — grilled, pan-sauteed and butter poached among them.
Bring a pan of water sufficient to cover the shrimp to a boil. Add any seasonings as desired, from lemon grass to seafood spice blends. Add the raw shrimp with shells on, let come back just to a boil, and keep at a simmer, giving a quick stir or two, approximately 2-5 minutes, depending on size.
Remove immediately. Drain. Reserve the liquid if you wish to use it for a stock or broth.
If serving immediately, toss on a newspaper on a picnic table and serve with cocktail sauce and melted butter. Let everyone peel their own. Provide an abundant supply of napkins, with heated damp towels when all are sated.
If cooking peeled shrimp, keep a ready eye and cook for less time. The best test for doneness is changing color. A "curled" shrimp is usually overcooked.
Freeze any leftover cooked shrimp immediately, or refrigerate up to two days and use in one of the accompanying recipes.
Brewton Inn Shrimp Creole
4 tablespoons bacon drippings, butter or oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 bell pepper, green, red or orange, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 quart can whole tomatoes
3 tablespoons tomato paste
Freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
3 cups cooked shrimp
4 cups hot cooked rice
Basil, thyme or other herbs (optional)
Heat the bacon drippings in a heavy casserole. Add the onions, green pepper, celery and garlic, and cook in the drippings until soft. Use long scissors to snip the whole tomatoes in the can, or break them up with fingers and add to the pot along with the tomato paste. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and cook, partially covered, over low heat until thick, approximately 30-45 minutes. Taste and season with salt, pepper and optional sugar. A few minutes before serving, add the cooked shrimp just to reheat. Serve over rice and sprinkle with any optional herbs.
This recipe from the 1950 cookbook "Charleston Receipts" credits the Brewton Inn in Brewton, Ala., as Shrimp Creole was developed in the Louisiana-Mississippi-Alabama Gulf areas that were inhabited by many Creole cooks. I've added the garlic and reduced the amount of celery.
2 pounds peeled and cooked shrimp
4 cups cooked wheat berries or rice (see note below)
1 bulb fennel, chopped
1 green onion, green part only, chopped
1/2 cup roughly broken pecans, lightly toasted
1-2 cups vinaigrette, mixed with 1/2-1 teaspoon curry powder
Fresh chopped herbs to garnish (optional)
Cut the shrimp into bite-size pieces. Toss with the wheat berries, fennel, green onion and pecans. Add enough vinaigrette to lightly coat. Serve chilled, and garnish with fresh chopped herbs if using.
Variation: Add arugula, mache or other tasty green to the salad.
Note: This unusual combination was developed after I first ate wheat berries a few weeks ago at a heart-healthy lecture and lunch for women provided by MUSC's Seinsheimer Cardiovascular Health Program.
I'd never met wheat berries — the wheat grain stripped of its outer hull, leaving just the whole kernel — before and fell in love with them as much for their texture as their delicious flavor.
To cook, soak overnight and cook in the water, boiling for 15 minutes, or unsoaked and cooked in boiling water for 50-60 minutes until lightly "chewy." Salt well. They double in volume when cooked, so 1 cup equals 2 cups cooked.
Cooked rice makes an equally attractive salad.
Starting in May, large white roe shrimp are available for a short few weeks.
Around the middle of June, the smaller brown shrimp begin to appear, and grow in size as summer progresses.
Toward the middle of
August, brown shrimp will be replaced by small white shrimp, which grow until the season ends in late fall or early winter.