Saturday, July 31, 2010

Something Different: Spectacular Summer Shrimp

Spectacular Summer Shrimp -- yes, I know, you can't have shrimp from the Gulf these days, and the shrimp fishermen there are hurting. Meanwhile, even aficionados on the Gulf can purchase summer shrimp -- from Mexico (the Pacific Coast), Thailand, Indonesia -- you name it; the choice is still there. Without the resources of the Gulf, we may have to, for a while, indulge in this pleasure a little less.

So let's assume you buy some fresh shrimp from one of those sources, still in the shell. How do you cook them? Ah, now you're talkin'. (This post is dedicated, in fact, to Mississippi resident Greg Griffith -- who, I assume, eats his share of shrimp, and who, in any event, shares his Southern recipes with us less fortunate ones who do not live there. I shall let him expound on the niceties of Southern barbecued shrimp, which is a whole different kettle of fish.)

The main decisions, as you will see, depend on whether you decide to serve peeled and deveined shrimp, or shrimp in the shell. In either case, use a serrated knife or shrimp deveiner to separate the two halves of the shell on top and bottom, and to pry out any gunk in the vein. Do this under running cold water. If serving the shrimp without their shells, then peel off the two halves of the shell, and leave only the tail, attached to a deveined body. If leaving the shell on, then leave it as split by the knife/deveiner, and remove any clinging legs.

Depending on what you decided in the previous step, the directions from this point vary accordingly. For example, if you decided to keep the shells on, then you will want to toss the shrimp in a bowl with some olive oil, chopped or minced garlic, seasoned and toasted bread crumbs, and any dried herbs / seasonings and liquor as discussed below. Let the mixture rest at room temperature for at least two to three hours before grilling or broiling (and turning the shrimp in accordance with the directions below). Sprinkle more herbs, grated cheese, and lemon juice on the finished platter of grilled or broiled shrimp. People will then eat the shrimp whole, and peel off and discard the shells (in a supplied bowl) according to taste.

If one is removing the shrimp from the shell before cooking, then different principles apply to their preparation. The first principle to realize is that it doesn't take very long to cook an individual shrimp through. Whether in the pan, under the broiler, or on the grill, shrimp cooks quickly on one side, and then on the other, in a matter of just minutes -- when it's pink on top and fleshy white all the way to the middle underneath, that side is done. Turn it over, and cook to the same degree on the other side. The total cooking time of the shrimp has to be minimal (under ten minutes, for certain, and optimum at around five to six minutes) -- just enough to turn each side that telltale pink on top, with white (not gray) flesh all the way to the middle. (If you're dealing with a hot grill or oven, both sides can turn pink at the same time, so be mindful of how fast it's cooking -- see these finer tips on grilling.) Overcooked shrimp are tough, flavorless, and unpleasant to chew -- so Rule No. 1 is:

1. Don't Overcook the Shrimp.

The next principle is to realize what ingredients go with grilled/sauteed/baked shrimp, and to act accordingly. Here, individual tastes will vary, but I shall assume that certain time-tested classics will prevail, no matter what part of the country you're in. (And if anything suggested here is new, then by all means, try it out! You either will like it, or not -- but in either case, you've learned something which you can put to use the next time.) My favorite flavors with shrimp, in no particular order, are the following:

1. Lemon

2. Butter

3. Bread crumbs (toasted and seasoned)

4. Garlic (minced or crushed)

5. Parmesan cheese (fresh grated)

6. Sherry (can also be vermouth, madeira, white wine, or even cognac, according to taste -- in the Southwest, they even use Tequila!)

7. Chives / green onions

8. Pepper (fresh ground); paprika

9. Other green herbs (basil, parsley, chervil, tarragon, and even dill and/or rosemary)

10. Capers

11. [If you're really feeling decadent] -- then real (not tofu) Bacon bits, tossed on the platter before serving

Each of us will have our likes and dislikes in that list. The important thing to recognize is that there are certain principles to combining those ingredients, given the short cooking life of shrimp. The point is to arrive at a moment when everything is done simultaneously -- the shrimp, and the chosen ingredients / accompaniments.

For example, let's start with garlic. Unless they've been previously roasted for about forty minutes, whole cloves of garlic should not be cooked with shrimp -- and then they should be added to the final dish at serving, instead of being cooked further. You can dice or mince the fresh, uncooked garlic cloves beforehand, but first you have to peel them (take off their outer skin). To do that most efficiently, flatten the individual cloves under the blade of a knife, by setting the flat blade on top of one or two of them, and then mashing down on the blade with the base of your hand. The clove will separate, the skin can be easily lifted off, and you have crushed garlic, to add to your dish at the appropriate moment. If you want to dice or mince the pieces finer, using a knife or garlic press, go ahead at that point. (Certain stores have already minced forms of garlic on hand -- these are fine, as long as you recognize that developing full flavor will require the addition of a crushed fresh clove or two.)

Garlic (whether crushed, minced or otherwise) burns easily over heat, and so that leads to Rule No. 2:

2. Add whatever garlic you want only after (a) there is sufficient melted butter or oil in the pan or oven dish, and (b) you have cooked the shrimp on their first side, and turned them over (see above).

The second side of the shrimp, and any garlic thus added, will take about the same time to cook, for maximum flavor without bitterness. (Again, make sure that any pan, or oven, is not so hot that the butter and garlic will burn.) If grilling the shrimp after marinating, the marinade should keep any minced garlic from burning before the first side is turned over -- this is a test of a grill heated to the proper temperature for cooking shrimp.

Rule No. 3 is very simple:

3. If you are adding sherry, vermouth, madeira, cognac or white wine, add it to the sauté pan/ baking dish only right after you add any fresh garlic, and then cover the pan to allow the liquid to be absorbed.

If you need to reduce the resulting sauce, do so on high heat after first removing the cooked shrimp and as much garlic as you can (with a small strainer or slotted spoon).

If you want to grill the shrimp instead, then as mentioned above, first coat the shrimp in olive oil, some bread crumbs and minced herbs, then sprinkle in some sherry / vermouth / cognac / white wine and let stand for at least two to three hours before placing the shrimp on the grill.

Another alternative when baking or sautéing peeled shrimp is first to dust the shrimp with flour before putting the shrimp into the hot (clarified, so it won't burn) butter or oil. Then, either before or while the shrimp is starting to cook, make up a quick sauce by adding equal parts of clam juice and madeira to a flour-and-butter roux. When the shrimp are not yet done on their second side, crush lots of garlic into the sauce, add lemon juice, pour it over the shrimp, sprinkle grated Parmesan or Gruyère over the top, and brown under the broiler. (You will want lots of fresh warm French bread to soak up that sauce!)

And those are the basics of Classic Summer Shrimp. The rest of the applicable principles derive from experience -- feel free to test them yourself, and come up with your own variations:

A. Lemon should be added absolutely last to any pan, or platter of grilled shrimp -- its flavor fades away the longer it stays in the frying pan or oven. The same is true of capers, and pepper.

B. It's OK to add a little Parmesan cheese as the shrimp is cooking, but you want to save the real addition until the shrimp is sitting on a warm platter, in its butter, herbs, garlic, capers and pepper. Grate fresh Parmesan over the top of the shrimp, and then pass the platter around with more fresh Parmesan in a bowl on the side. If you are using Bacon Bits, sprinkle them over the platter at the same time, or pass in a side dish for people to add as they prefer.

C. Fresh or dried chives, or sliced green onions, should be added to the pan / oven dish when the garlic is first added, and sauteed together with it and the shrimp. Fresh chopped, minced chives may also be sprinkled over the platter -- as may chopped parsley, and other fresh herbs. Dried herbs, on the other hand, should be added to the sauté pan or oven dish right after the garlic is added. (If you are grilling, then add the dried herbs to the marinade before grilling, and sprinkle any cheese/additional garlic/pepper/capers over the platter just before serving.)

D. If you follow the above directions carefully, you will not miss any salt. But if you absolutely must add salt, then leave it to the individual diners to do so, after they have helped themselves to the shrimp and the other flavorings. No amount of salt is right for everybody, so let each diner choose the preferred degree of saltiness on their own.

E. If you do cook this recipe with sherry, make it a good genuine Spanish variety, such as a Dry Fino or Amontillado, which you have tasted beforehand for quality. Madeira should be dry, not sweet (Rainwater, Sercial or Verdelho, not Boal or Malmsey). Any vermouth, cognac or white wine should likewise be of good quality -- you are not using that much, after all.

F. In all cases, serve the shrimp with crusty pieces of warm French bread, or other artisan breads, so that people may soak up the sauce / marinade.

And there you have it -- Spectacular Summer Shrimp. Enjoy!


  1. Dear Mr. Haley,

    I would suspect that some of the single malt whiskies would also work very well in lieu of wine. For those not fond of smokiness and/or peatiness, I would consider an unpeated (or very lightly peated) Speyside or one of the few Lowlanders that are still to be found (currently Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie and Bladnoch), although there are still casks aging from the the remaining five Lowland distilleries that are closed, mothballed or demolished. Many of the latter can be rather pricey. They are Inverleven, Ladyburn, Littlemill, Rosebank and St. Magdalene. I can vouch for the reputation of the Rosebank, it is considered by many aficionados as the Queen of the Lowland single malts. For those who like moderately peated whisky there is an excellent summer dessert that uses fresh raspberries, whipped cream, either toasted pin cut oats or toasted coarsely ground almonds (the latter depending upon personal preference), and a bit of lightly peated single malt (whisked into the whipped cream). It is called cranachan, and is marvelous, particularly when made with Bruichladdich, a not very heavily peated Islay whisky.

    Pax et bonum (and cheers),
    Keith Töpfer

  2. Allan knows what he's talking about. In every area of which I am aware.

  3. Dear Keith Töpfer, thank you for adding the finer points of Scotch to the principles above. I shall have to experiment, and I hope you are encouraged to do so, too -- and then report back to the readers of this post.

    I have to confess -- my favorite use of Scotch whiskey in cooking is with barbecued baby back spareribs, where a smoky taste is preferred, rather than avoided. Sprinkle it over the raw ribs after rubbing in the other seasonings, and if roasting them in the oven, cover the pan with tinfoil for the first hour and a half -- otherwise, if grilling, keep some marinade back and baste continuously during the slow-cook process.

    My greatest success to date with cooking ribs in this manner has been with Laphroaig, although I am keen to obtain some Lagavulin (16-year-old), or maybe the ultimate Islay: Ardbeg's Uigeadail. Comments will be much appreciated.

    Christopher Seal, thank you. I try to limit the topics here to matters on which I have some experience.

  4. Mr. Haley,

    Ardbeg Uigeadail is an exceptional expression of the make—reputedly a mix of very young and very old Ardbeg whiskies. There appears, however, to be a new candidate for the ultimate Islay from Ardbeg. It is called Airigh Nam Beist, which translates from Scots Gaelic to English as "shelter of the beast" or "lair of the beast." It is named for the second loch below Loch Uigeadail (which latter supplies the distillery's water).

    It is aged 16 years, and was extremely well received by the experts. I had a bottle of Uigeadail a few years ago, and, save for the cost, might well have purchased another. Unfortunately for the Airigh Nam Beist, we learned at a Scotch Malt Whisky Society Tasting and Dinner earlier this year that the current supply of Airigh Nam Beist in the U.S., is probably the last. As a result of that news and the fact I hadn't tried it, I now possess a bottle, although I have not yet opened it. I am saving the first taste for a special occasion to be determined.

    Pax et bonum et sláinte mhath,
    Keith Töpfer, Member, Scotch Malt Whisky Society (USA)