Shrimp That’s Not Skimpy

A few years ago, some chef friends and I started a tradition of cooking for each other on New Year's Day. It was supposed to be all about kicking back after the weeks of long hours that go into pulling off special holiday menus for guests and family. What we needed was a pot luck. And maybe a beer or two.

But of course we all ended up trying to show off. The trick at this kind of gathering is to do something spectacular but make it seem totally offhand. I'm still thinking about the pickled green beans Eric Jansen put on the table last year. (If you're a serious eater I'm sure you know Eric's cooking well; if you don't, get yourself to Blackfish in Truro as soon as they open up again this spring.) I've still got today to keep last year's New Year's resolution to get that recipe from him.

I'm thinking about trying to get a rise out of people with something equally old-fashioned: shrimp cocktail. It's a classic crowd pleaser, and with this group, that's code for boring. But if I do it right, I know they'll end up eating every last shrimp.

My brother Alex would say it's because we've got our hands on a superior species of shrimp, the Mexican brown (Farfantepenaeus californiensis) found wild on Mexico's Pacific coast.

In the case of shrimp, wild is definitely better than farmed. Intensive farming, done mostly in India, Thailand, and Ecuador, is threatening the mangroves that protect whole coastal communities. And it's rare to find farmed shrimp that is not treated with antibiotics and other chemicals. Yet I've read that well over 80% of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. is farmed.

Alex discovered these Pacific shrimp several years ago when he went with friends for a mid-winter week at the beach. He is not the kind to be deterred by a few tequila sunrises. As far as I can tell, he spent most of his time on those trips sussing out tacos and stuffed peppers and shrimp.

Local shrimping families used to set up their coolers on the port and sell out daily, but Alex says that now they've joined together in a co-op and share a nice market facility. They've also beat the big industrial trawlers at meeting conservation regulations by using gear that doesn't ensnare turtles.

The Mexican brown shrimp are undeniably excellent. But the way we handle and cook them also makes a huge difference in texture and flavor. The shrimp arrive in a block of ice––a rare exception to our focus on fresh seafood that has never been frozen, but there's really no other way to get it here in excellent condition. We thaw them gently, then, even though they're already deveined, we extend that cut along the back so they butterfly nicely when cooked.

Then we boil them in well-salted water (about two tablespoons of salt per quart of water will approximate the salinity of seawater) for not much more than a minute. You can blame all that rubbery shrimp cocktail out there on overcooking. As soon as we drain the shrimp, we plunge them into ice water. But here's the real secret: this water is also salted. The shrimp retain their true seafood flavor because their natural salt content is not ever replaced by fresh water.

Now to the cocktail sauce. I'm not going to cheat and make something exotic. I'm going to start with plain old ketchup and tabasco like everybody else. I actually like that familiar tart-sweet-hot combination with shrimp. But I'm not going to rummage around my fridge for the horseradish I opened in June. I'm going to go all out on a brand new jar, so it'll be bright and pungent. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and I'll have Eric asking for my recipe.

Posted in  Fishermen & Farmers  How To

Tagged  shrimp  sustainable

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Capt. Andrew Cummings says:

Dec 31, 2011 at 06:04 PM

I’m very happy you mentioned the major problem with shrimp farming (destruction to mangrove habitat), let alone the poor quality of farmed shrimp.  If we as consumers stop buying farmed shrimp, perhaps the world’s depleted mangrove habitats can re-bound.  Plus, supporting sustainable wild fisheries and the families involved, supports small local economies and help to protect environments from harmful development.

Keep up the great work!

Make it a great New Year,
Andrew Cummings

Jeremy says:

Jan 17, 2012 at 03:16 PM

I recently discovered the “ice bath” technique and I think it keeps the shrimp firm and keeps them from overcooking.  Great trick!

I have never had better shrimp from a fish market then I get a Mac’s!!!  You guy’s are the best!!

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