- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Americans are shrimp crazy. We eat nearly 4 pounds of it per person per year. In 2001, for the first time, shrimp consumption in the United States surpassed that of canned tuna, our previous seafood darling, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the government agency that regulates the domestic fishing industry.

If that sounds surprising, take a look around the next time you go to a cocktail party. As soon as the platter of shrimp is presented, everyone will stop, head for the shrimp, devour them like people possessed and then return to whatever they were previously eating.

Luckily for shrimp lovers — me among them — the small world of shrimp is huge. There are hundreds of species, ranging from tiny to gigantic, with shells in practically every color, including some that look like rainbows. In appreciation, I offer you a few helpful facts on shrimp for cooking inspiration.

SIZE

Shrimp are sold according to the number in a pound: 10 to 15 shrimp per pound is referred to as 10 to 15 count or size, while 16 to 20 shrimp per pound is 16 to 20 count, and so on. So the higher the number, the smaller the shrimp.

BUYING SHRIMP

Like all other fish and shellfish, fresh shrimp should have a clean, fresh seaweed smell. Any hints of ammonia indicate that they are not at their prime and are probably old, so don’t buy them. (I dislike the packaging of foods in plastic because it denies us one of our best tools to evaluate freshness — the scent.)

FRESH VS. FROZEN

Unless we are in a place where we can buy shrimp right off the boat, the shrimp we see in the market have probably been frozen. Once out of the water, shrimp deteriorates quickly, and because of that it is usually processed and frozen immediately. Also, to help it maintain freshness, most of what we see is sold with the head removed because that’s the first part to spoil. So when it comes to shrimp, don’t be fooled by promises of fresh and don’t be put off by the word frozen.

SHRIMP SHELLS

These are a little bonus gift. There is actually more flavor in the shell of the shrimp than there is in the meat. If you are peeling shrimp before cooking, don’t throw away the shells. Put them in a plastic freezer bag, seal it and toss it in the freezer. Next time you need fish stock for a soup, sauce or stew, all you have to do is add the frozen shells to stock (canned, defatted chicken broth is fine) and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Strain the liquid and discard the shells. You will have a delicious stock in very little time. The more shells you have, the more flavorful the stock will be. This is much better than, and nearly as easy as, using bottled clam juice, which is what many recipes suggest when fish stock is needed.

BRINING

I almost always brine “green” (uncooked) shrimp before cooking. It doesn’t take long, and it adds succulence and a firmer, juicy texture that I think is fantastic. You can use a liquid brine that is simply a combination of 1/3 cup kosher or sea salt and 1/3 cup brown sugar dissolved in 1 quart cold water. Cover the peeled or unpeeled shrimp with the cold brine and let them sit for anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours. Or you can use the dry method and simply sprinkle the shrimp with a generous amount of kosher or sea salt and let them sit for 10 to 15 minutes. With either method, be sure to rinse the shrimp well before cooking to remove excess salt.

The magic that occurs in brining results from osmosis. It is a natural process in which, if you have a semipermeable membrane (in this case the shrimp), a liquid concentration will naturally migrate from one side to the other until it is equal on both sides.

Salt is the catalyst here. It begins its migration into the shrimp, pulling with it water and sugar. The water makes the shrimp juicy and succulent, and the sugar adds flavor. Sugar is one of nature’s best flavor enhancers, which is why it shows up in savory dishes from many cuisines. What would typical savory Thai dishes be without palm or brown sugar?

Of course, we don’t want to leave the shrimp in the brine too long, or it will become too salty. The idea is to take advantage of some of the osmosis but to remove the shrimp before the meat is saturated with salt and sugar. Make sense? If not, just take my word that it works. Or try it yourself in the following recipe.

Grilled shrimp wrapped in soppressata with mango hot mustard sauce

This recipe is from my book “Cooking One on One: Private Lessons in Simple, Contemporary Food From a Master Teacher” (Clarkson Potter).

16 small fresh basil leaves

16 large uncooked (16 to 20 size) shrimp, peeled, deveined and brined, if you like

16 thin slices soppressata (see note)

Mango hot mustard sauce (recipe follows)

If brining shrimp, do so and set aside. If grilling on wooden skewers, soak skewers in warm water for 20 minutes.

Prepare a charcoal fire, or preheat a gas or stovetop grill. Place a basil leaf on the side of each shrimp, and then wrap the shrimp with a slice of soppressata. Thread shrimp onto wooden skewers, if desired. Grill shrimp until just cooked through. The center should be slightly translucent. (Check this with the point of a small knife.) Serve immediately with mango hot mustard sauce spooned over or arranged for dipping. Makes 4 servings as a main course.

MANGO HOT MUSTARD SAUCE:

1/2 cup pureed ripe mango (from 1 medium mango) or canned

1/4 cup fresh tangerine or orange juice

3/4 teaspoon Chinese hot mustard powder, or to taste

2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

2 teaspoons seasoned rice vinegar

2 tablespoons dry white wine

1 tablespoon canola or other neutral-flavored oil

Salt

Combine mango, tangerine or orange juice, mustard powder, lime juice, vinegar, and wine in a blender, and pulse 3 or 4 times to puree and combine. Add oil and pulse 3 or 4 times more to make a smooth sauce. Season with salt to taste. Set sauce aside for at least 2 hours while the flavors marry and build. The sauce can be warmed gently, but do not simmer or boil. Store covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Makes about 1 cup.

Note: Soppressata is a dry, cured pork salami.

Paella with chicken, clams and shrimp

This recipe is from “Cooking One on One.”

1/4 cup olive oil

2 pounds boned and skinless chicken thighs, cut in half

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 cups (1 large) white onion, chopped

2 tablespoons sliced garlic

1 cup diced poblano or other mild green chili

2 cups Valencia or other medium-grain rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

4 cups hot homemade chicken stock or canned broth

1/4 teaspoon saffron threads, or to taste

1 cup diced fresh or drained canned tomatoes

3 or 4 fresh thyme sprigs, or 2 teaspoons dried

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

2 pounds fresh Manila or littleneck clams, well-scrubbed

1 pound uncooked large (16 to 20 size) shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 cups cooked fresh or frozen giant lima or fava beans

Herb sprigs for garnish, optional

Heat olive oil in large, shallow pan over medium-high heat. Season chicken well with salt and pepper to taste, and lightly brown in pan on all sides, about 5 minutes.

Add onion, garlic and chilies, and stir for another 2 minutes or until vegetables just begin to color. Add rice; stir for a minute to coat the grains.

Add wine, stock or broth, saffron, tomatoes, thyme, and fennel, and stir gently. Bring to a boil and nestle clams down into rice mixture.

Cover pan with lid, and cook until clams open (discard any that don’t) and the rice is tender, about 15 minutes.

Nestle shrimp into rice mixture, cover and cook for another minute or so, until shrimp is pink. (Shrimp will continue to cook as it sits.) Remove from heat, then stir in beans, taste, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with herbs, if desired. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Shrimp Waldorf salad

The original Waldorf salad was created at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York in the late 1890s by chef Oscar Tschirky. It was considered the height of sophistication and originally was nothing more than apples, celery and mayonnaise. Chopped nuts and grapes came later, and a once-popular version for children contained tiny marshmallows.

1/2 cup good-quality mayonnaise

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/3 cup buttermilk

2 teaspoons fresh lemon or lime juice

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons roughly chopped fresh tarragon

Salt and freshly ground pepper

3/4 pound cooked large (16 to 20 size) peeled and deveined shrimp

11/2 cups (1 small) diced tart sweet apple such as Fuji, peeled or not

1 cup thinly sliced celery or fennel

1 cup red seedless grapes, cut in half

1/4 cup blanched slivered almonds, lightly toasted

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped chives, optional

12 tender butter lettuce leaves

To make dressing, whisk together mayonnaise, mustard, buttermilk, lemon or lime juice, sugar, and tarragon, and season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Set aside.

Cut shrimp in 1/2-inch pieces and place in large bowl along with apple, celery or fennel, and grapes. Stir in dressing and mound on serving plates. Sprinkle with almonds and, if desired, chives.

Place lettuce leaves attractively on plates next to salad so guests can use them to roll up around salad and eat. Salad can be made a couple of hours ahead but is best when eaten the day it’s made.

Makes 4 servings.

John Ash is author of “Cooking One on One: Private Lessons in Simple, Contemporary Food From a Master Teacher” (Clarkson Potter), winner of a 2005 James Beard award.


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