- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Just occasionally, an ideal recipe comes along, and here is one of them. Salt-and-pepper shrimp need only a skillet (well, 2 actually) and tongs for turning. They can be cooked indoors or outside on the grill.

Any shrimp will do, large or small, from the sea or fresh water. They must be raw, and preferably peeled or you’ll have some work ahead of time.

I discovered salt-and-pepper shrimp on the Atlantic coast of France, where brisk winds and hot sun make it possible to extract artisan salt from seawater simply by evaporation. The finest, sparkling white fleur de sel crystallizes on the surface of man-made lagoons, then is skimmed, dried and packed into boxes — the pure flavor of the sea. The taste varies slightly from producer to producer, just like wine.

I was sitting in a beachfront cafe on a windy day enjoying a glass of white wine when a small plate of what looked like grilled shrimp appeared in front of me. Lifting a tail with my fingers, I chomped on a burst of sweet, salty, crisp perfection. The waiter was watching my reaction. “You need a grind of pepper,” she said. And so I did. The pepper added yet another dimension. Soon the whole plate was gone.

I ordered another plateful and enquired from my waiter about the cooking. “You heat a dry pan or a griddle scalding hot,” she explained. “Toss the shrimp in cornstarch and salt, then spread them in the pan and press them down with a second heavy pan, or a weight.” Ah, there’s the double secret — a cornstarch coating is by nature light and crisp, while pressing the shrimp on the hot surface seals them at once.

Back home, after a trial or two I got it right. A cast iron skillet is best for cooking the shrimp. They must be peeled and dried on paper towels before tossing in the cornstarch mixture for an even coating. The pan must be very hot, with a heavy weight on top of the shrimp so they cook fast. A second skillet is ideal but a frying pan and brick do well, too. Most important, flip the shrimp with tongs as soon as they are lightly colored and rapidly brown the other side. Remember that shrimp overcook all too quickly.

Salt-and-pepper shrimp are ideal backyard fare, an invitation to corn on the cob, baked potato, summer tomato vinaigrette and a green salad. And don’t forget the grinder for a shower of fresh black pepper on the plate. The plump, spicy grains from Tellicherry in India would be my choice.

Salt-and-pepper shrimp

Makes 4 servings.

You can use any size of shrimp for this recipe, from those graded large at a count of 21 to 25 to the pound, up to the giants at 5 or 6 to the pound. They disappear fast, so allow half a pound per person. I like to use coarse sea salt for flavor and crunch.

2 pounds peeled shrimp

1/4 cup cornstarch

1 tablespoon coarse sea salt

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, more if needed

Black pepper in a grinder, for serving

Rinse and drain the shrimp; pat dry on paper towels. Mix cornstarch and salt in a large bowl.

Heat a large skillet until very hot, 3 to 5 minutes. Meanwhile toss shrimp in cornstarch mixture. Add oil to hot skillet - it should smoke. Add enough shrimp to cover base of pan, spreading them flat. Put another skillet on top to press shrimp down (or use a frying pan and brick as weight). Cook shrimp until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes depending on size. Remove weight, flip shrimp, put back weight and brown other side, 1 to 2 minutes.

Transfer shrimp to a warm bowl and serve at once, passing a pepper grinder separately. Reheat pan and cook remaining shrimp in the same way, passing them as seconds.

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