As the pandemic crisis lingers, how we continue to meet it has become a matter of debate. Some are choosing to continue physical isolation by staying home a bit longer, others have begun sticking their toes back into the world.
But whether you stay home or venture out, there is one thing on which we all seem to agree: the elemental need for comfort food evoked by times like these.
Fortunately, one of our greatest local comforts is just coming into season: the sweet brown shrimp that teem in our tidal creeks and marshes.
They are the very essence of the Lowcountry and Coastal Georgia table and one flavor that says “home” to natives and transplants alike.
Of all the ways we prepare them, arguably the best is to “boil” them whole, in shell with their heads still attached. Boil is in quotes because it should never be taken literally. The liquid must be boiling when the shrimp are added, but after that it is never allowed to boil.
The next best (and probably most popular) way, especially if their armor is removed, is frying. They cook in a flash, so their flavor and succulence are preserved more fully than in any other method. It also enhances the flavor and texture with a crisply caramelized crust.
But frying, let’s face it, is messy. Most of the time, I confess I’d rather let a restaurant do it for me. Baking, grill-broiling and sautéing, on the other hand, are far less messy and are much simpler to accomplish in a home kitchen.
Of those three, sautéing (which includes stir-frying) is by far the easiest to control. You’re over the pan the entire time, so the shrimp are never out of sight and the heat beneath them is simpler to regulate.
The recipes that follow, except for the simple but elegant gratin, all take advantage of the sauté technique. They’re done in minutes, are reasonably economical, and best of all, are delightful to eat.
They also, in response to the fact that many of us are cooking for fewer people, serve just two. If you have more people than that to feed, they double comfortably. Multiply everything except the fat by two, but only increase that by half .
If you’re an old hand, you don’t need these, but if you’re new to our area or have somehow never had to shop for shrimp, they’re useful to know.
• Buy only from a reliable local fish market or trusted shrimper selling direct from the dock or a cooler on the back of his truck.
• The names for our local shrimp – brown, gray and white – derive from their subtle color differences. They’re all shades of gray and turn pink when cooked. There are varieties of shrimp that are pink when raw, but they’re not local.
• Sizing is based on the number of shrimp in a pound: “Small” designates 51-60 per pound, “Medium” 41-50, “Large” 31-35, and “extra-large” 26-30, and “jumbo “20-25. There are also such designations as “extra-small,” “Medium-large,” and “Colossal,” but we rarely see them in our markets.
• Many mistakenly call jumbo to colossal shrimp “prawns,” but prawns are actually a different crustacean.
• Look for clear, firm shellfish with a clean smell of the sea. If they smell a little fishy they’re probably not spoiled, but they’re no longer fresh.
• If you buy directly from the shrimper, the shrimp may still have the “head” attached. It’s really not just the head, it’s the entire body, but the tail is the edible portion. Expect to pay about half what you would for headed shrimp, but then you’ll need twice as much to get the same amount. Don’t turn up your nose: commercially caught shrimp are headed as soon as they’re harvested because whole shrimp spoil more quickly. If they’re whole and smelling of the sea, they’re as fresh as you’ll get without netting them yourself.
• Don’t throw out those “heads:” They make great stock, and when the shrimp are cooked in shell, as in a Lowcountry boil, the flavor is better preserved if they’re whole.
• Unless you cook them immediately, refrigerate them well-wrapped, if possible on a bed of crushed ice. Since they’ll have been out of the water for at least a day by the time you get them, do try to cook them the day you buy them.
• Cooking shrimp is like make-up and religion: it requires restraint and common sense. The instant they’re curled and pink, they’re almost there, and are done as soon as they’re opaque to the center, a matter of seconds after they change color. Small shrimp take less than a minute; medium to large under 2; jumbo shrimp and true prawns no more than 3.
A lot of shrimp gratins are heavy with cream and cheese, but they can get awfully complicated and, besides, an excess of dairy fat can weigh down the delicate flavor of the shrimp and is awfully rich for warm weather meals. This one has just enough cheese to bring out and carry the flavor and is very simple to put together. Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as an appetizer
1. Remove half of lemon zest with grater and cut lemon in half. Put shrimp in mixing bowl. Add grated zest, scallions, garlic, juice from lemon half from which zest was removed, wine, 1 tablespoon olive oil or melted butter, anchovy paste, small pinch each of salt and cayenne (to taste). Toss until anchovy paste is dissolved. Let marinate 15-30 minutes.
2. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375° F. Rub 2 individual oval gratin dishes with olive oil. Divide marinated shrimp among dishes. Wipe out bowl in which shrimp marinated and add crumbs and 1 teaspoon oil or melted butter. Toss until fat is evenly absorbed by crumbs. Add both cheeses and toss to mix.
3. Sprinkle parsley and then crumb mixture evenly over each gratin. Bake until shrimp are cooked through and topping is golden brown, about 15-20 minutes. Be careful not to overcook. Cut remaining lemon half into 4 wedges and serve gratins warm with lemon and crusty baguette.
Trimming a fresh whole artichoke is a little more work than dumping in canned or frozen artichoke hearts, but the flavor is so much better that it’s well worth it. You can, however, substitute 1-1½ cups of quartered drained canned, or thawed frozen , artichoke hearts. Serves 2
1. Put about 1 inch water in heavy-bottomed saucepan and fit with steamer insert. Cover and bring water to boil over medium high heat. Meanwhile, scrub potatoes under cold running water and drain. Cut into quarters. When water is boiling, put potatoes in steamer insert, cover, and steam until barely tender, about 6-8 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool.
2. Half fill large bowl with water and squeeze in juice from one lemon half. Trim stem end of artichokes and rub with other lemon half. Pull off first few layers of tough outer petals of artichokes, rubbing with lemon as you go. Begin placing thumb against base of petals and snap off petal, leaving base of petal on. Continue until center cone is about 2/3 pale yellow-green, still rubbing with lemon. Cut off top of center cone with very sharp knife and rub with lemon. With sharp paring knife, peel away tough outer part of stems and base of artichoke. Rub well with lemon. Cut each artichoke into quarters and cut out fuzzy choke. Cut each quarter into 2-3 wedges and drop into basin of lemon water as you go.
3. Heat oil and garlic in large, deep skillet over medium heat. When beginning to sizzle, drain artichokes and add to pan. Sauté until bright green and hot. Add 1 tablespoon parsley, wine, and broth or water. Season lightly with salt and pepper, bring to boil, cover pan, and braise until artichokes are tender, about 5-10 minutes. Remove lid and if any liquid remains, allow to evaporate. Add potatoes, shrimp, and capers and sauté, tossing often, until shrimp are curled and pink and potatoes are heated through, about 3-4 minutes. Taste and season as needed with salt and pepper, sprinkle with remaining parsley, and serve at once.
Mushrooms are a perfect mate for shrimp. Shiitake are called for here, but in season wild chanterelles are also lovely, and it’ll even work with brown cremini (baby bella) mushrooms.
Serve as is from the pan with crusty baguette or over hot cooked rice or toss it with 6 ounces (precooked weight) cooked linguine or thin spaghetti. Serves 2.
1. Wipe mushrooms with dry cloth and remove tough, woody stems, discarding stems or setting aside for making broth. Thickly slice caps.
2. Put butter and oil in large, deep skillet over medium heat. When melted and hot, raise heat to medium high and add shallot. Sauté until translucent and beginning to color, then add mushrooms. Sauté, tossing often, until wilted, about 2 minutes, then add garlic, oregano, and half of parsley. Toss well and heat until fragrant, about 20 seconds.
3. Add shrimp to pan and sauté, tossing often, until curled and pink but not quite done. Add wine and cook until evaporated. Season well with salt, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce. Add remaining parsley, toss, and serve at once with crusty baguette.
Many shrimp taco recipes include a coleslaw made with some of the lime crema, but I find that a bit heavy with this shellfish and prefer shredded lettuce instead. If you’re not a fan of cilantro, substitute fresh oregano for it or a combination of oregano and parsley. Serves 2.
1. Make crema (sauce): Blend sour cream and mayonnaise. Lay garlic clove on work surface. Place flat side of wide cook’s knife on top, and firmly tap to crush garlic. Peel and chop fine. Set aside half of garlic and sprinkle remainder with pinch of salt. Scrape to a puree with flat side of knife and add to sour cream and mayonnaise along with cilantro. Grate zest from 1 lime into sauce, cut in half, and blend in juice from ½ of lime. Add dash of hot sauce, taste, and add salt, hot sauce, and lime juice as needed. Can be made up to 1 day ahead: cover and refrigerate.
2. Halve and juice 1 lime into glass or stainless steel bowl. Add remaining garlic, tequila, 1 teaspoon minced cilantro, large pinch salt and dash in hot sauce to taste. Add shrimp and toss to coat. Let marinate 30 minutes.
3. Halve, pit, peel, and dice avocado. Put in glass bowl with tomatoes, white part of scallions and jalapeno if desired. Toss with juice of ½ lime and season with salt. Gently toss to mix.
4. Warm oil in seasoned iron or nonstick skillet over medium heat. When hot, drain shrimp and add to pan. Sauté until just cooked through. Remove to warm bowl and wipe out pan.
5. Return pan to medium heat and let heat 2 minutes. Lay 1 tortilla in pan and heat, turning once with tongs, until hot and beginning to toast. Remove from pan to warm plate. Repeat with second tortilla and place on top of first . Repeat until all tortillas are toasted and stacked in twos.
6. Mound lettuce down center of each tortilla stack and drizzle with sauce. Divide shrimp and avocado and tomato salsa among them and drizzle with sauce. Garnish with torn cilantro leaves and green parts of scallions. Fold over and serve accompanied by lime wedges.
This makes a lighter lunch or supper. To make it a bit more substantial, you may double the amount of carrots and peas, or add a cup of sliced shiitake mushroom caps (stem removed), a medium red bell pepper, stemmed, cored, and cut into strips roughly the same size as the peas, or half a red and half a green pepper. Serves 2.
1. Put shrimp in glass or stainless steel mixing bowl. Add wine, soy sauce, 1 teaspoon ginger root, sesame oil, and sprinkle in cornstarch. Stir until smooth. Marinate 30 minutes.
2. Heat a seasoned steel wok over medium-high heat. Drizzle in about 1-2 teaspoons oil around edges and let run to bottom. (If using a nonstick wok, heat with oil already in it and use only medium heat until food is added.) Add snow peas and carrots and stir-fry until bright green. Add ¼ cup water to wok, cover, and steam 1 minute. Remove lid and continue stir-frying until liquid is evaporated. Remove vegetables from wok and spread on large plate or platter.
3. Return wok to heat. Drizzle in 2-3 teaspoons oil as before and let run to bottom. Stir shrimp to redistribute marinade and add to wok. Add garlic and remaining ginger. Stir fry until shrimp are turning pink but not quite done. Return carrot and peas to pan and add scallion, stir-fry half a minute longer, then add oyster sauce and stir until shrimp and vegetables are coated and sauce is quite thick. Serve with hot steamed rice.
Post time: Nov-13-2020