Shrimp season is almost here

May 15, 2013 

"Fruit of the sea," Bubba, the character in "Forrest Gump," calls shrimp.

And what could be more correct?

Shrimp is by far the most popular seafood Americans consume, and the variety of ways they can be cooked far exceeds the 21 methods in Bubba's now famous soliloquy.

The great misfortune in America's craving for the "fruit of the seas" is that 90 percent of what is consumed here is imported, and much of that is farmed-raised, an industry that is fraught with ecological and health concerns.

We on the gulf, however, are blessed to have a handful of local fish sellers where the freshest seafood can be purchased, with a great selection of locally wild-caught shrimp.

At different times of the year you will find different kinds of shrimp available: white, pink or brown, but you can sometimes also find rock shrimp, royal reds and hoppers.

Locally, the favorite seems to be the brown shrimp, a firm and very flavorful shrimp. The season usually runs June to December.

The size you buy is really a personal decision and that size varies from tiny to colossal with 11 categories to choose from. The smallest, and they are really tiny, 61-70 per pound; jumbo is usually described as 21-25; extra jumbo is 16-20; and the largest is extra colossal, U10, with only five shrimp per pound.

As with all seafood, the greatest pitfall is overcooking. A shrimp of almost any size will be perfectly cooked, whether it is being sautéed or boiled, in just 1- 1/2 minutes.

For best results do not over crowd the pan and do not allow the temperature of the water

or the oil to rapidly decline. Allow the shrimp to come to room temperature before cooking, plunging ice cold shrimp into boiling water or hot oil is a recipe for gastronomic disaster.

If you are sautéing shrimp, make sure to dry them with paper towels first, as with almost any protein they will not take on a good sear if they are moist.

SIMPLE AND PERFECT SHRIMP

The real secret to making the best shrimp is in the technique. Shrimp can be made just a bit more moist by brining in salt water. Cooking them at a very high temperature for a very brief time is also paramount.

1 pound large shrimp, shell on

Olive oil

Tony Chachere's Creole seasoning

1 gallon salted water

Add 2-3 tablespoons salt to a gallon of water, dissolve the salt and add the shrimp. Allow them to brine for at least one hour, then remove and drain and dry thoroughly. Best is to dry with paper towels and then put them in front of a fan for 30 minutes or so. Season the shrimp with Tony's, remembering that a main ingredient in this seasoning is salt. Add enough oil to a sauté pan and heat to smoking. Add the shrimp a few at a time, do not overcrowd the pan. Sear for just 45 seconds on a side, turn once and then remove and set aside. As you cook you may notice moisture building up in the pan, drain it, dry it and re-add oil if this happens.

Shrimp are best served unadorned, but if you crave a dipping sauce make a garlic mayonnaise by simply adding minced garlic to best quality mayonnaise, a splash of lemon juice and a bit of chopped basil. A wedge of lemon is a nice garnish.

SHRIMP BOAT SPAGHETTI

A local favorite for generations, this recipe was the result of shrimpers' ingenuity and frugal ways. A can of tomato sauce or a few ripe tomatoes, a pound of pasta and a bit of the day's catch made for a sustaining meal and cost only pennies.

1 pound spaghetti or fettuccini

1 pound large shrimp, shells removed

1 can best quality whole tomatoes

1 cup red wine

1 chopped onion

1/2 cup chopped bell pepper

1/2 cup chopped celery

3-4 cloves chopped garlic

2 pinches Italian seasoning

Red pepper flakes

Olive oil

Cook the pasta according to package directions, drain and then set aside. Add a little oil to a sauté pan and heat to almost smoking, add the shrimp and cook quickly, about 45 seconds on a side. Remove and set aside. Add the onions, bell peppers and celery to the same pan (do not rinse it), season aggressively and sauté for 5 or 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more, then add the tomatoes and red wine, simmer for about 30 minutes, add the shrimp and cook just a few minutes; if you overcook the shrimp they will be tough. Plate the pasta, top with the sauce and serve immediately.

SHRIMP AND GRITS

This is a recipe that originated in the Carolina Low Country but much of the country has adapted it. It can be as simple as basic grits and shrimp tossed in butter or as complicated as you can make it with adorning sauces and even a flambé.

1 cup grits

2 tablespoons butter

2 cups chicken stock

1/2 heavy cream

1 cup white cheddar cheese

1 pound large, shelled shrimp

1 chopped onion

1/2 cup chopped bell pepper

6-8 sweet, ripe cherry tomatoes

Freshly ground black pepper

Red pepper flakes

Heat the chicken stock and cream in a sauté pan, whisk in the grits and simmer until done, about 30 minutes, but remember different grinds of grits require different cooking times. Just before done add the cheese and a pinch or two of red pepper flakes, stir well. Pour the grits into oiled molds and allow to cool. Sauté the shrimp in a little oil and then set aside. Add the onions and bell peppers to the pan, season and sauté for 6-8 minutes, and then add the tomatoes, crushing them with a wooden spoon as you stir. Simmer for 5 minutes, then add the shrimp and stir well. Take the grits out of the mold, plate and top with the shrimp. Serve immediately.

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