Gulf Coast Cooking

Fresh gulf shrimp needs light touch

June means a lot of things, in a culinary way. But what most Gulf Coast, Miss., locals look forward to is the start of shrimp season.

The experience of driving down to the Small Craft Harbor in Biloxi and watching the first boats come in around 8 a.m., knowing that there will be coolers packed with ice and the freshest shrimp possible, should make your culinary pulse race. Who knows what the season will bring -- huge shrimp, small shrimp, few shrimp or a great season of jumbo shrimp? It's a guessing game until you look into that first cooler and see for yourself.

Just a few tips on buying shrimp right off the boat. If you want the big ones, you have to arrive early. Most locals know this, but a few savvy tourists will show up early with ice chests of their own to fill as well.

Nothing is more important when cooking shrimp than not to overcook it. Nothing. If shrimp stays on the grill or in the pan too long -- and anything over two minutes is too long -- it becomes tough, and that is a very unpleasant texture in something that should be tender, light and full of flavor.

Fresh from the Gulf shrimp should taste like shrimp, not the artificial seasoning that comes in a bag, not Creole or Cajun seasoning, just shrimp. There are a few things you might add in the scantest of quantities -- a pinch of salt and freshly ground black or white pepper.

If you are boiling shrimp you might add a few vegetables to the stock to buck it up a bit, like a lemon or lime, a single, lonely jalapeño or a quartered red onion, but that's about it. Why would you want shrimp to taste like anything but shrimp?

SHRIMP, SAUSAGE AND RICE OR RISOTTO

1 cup risotto

3 cups chicken or seafood stock

1/2 cup chopped smoked sausage

1 small chopped onion

2-3 cloves smashed garlic

1 pound large shrimp

1/4 cup good white wine

1-2 pinches red pepper flakes

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Start with the risotto, it will take the longest by far. Heat the stock to just below a simmer in a separate sauce pan. Sauté the onion in a little oil for 5 minutes, add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more. Now removed the garlic and discard it. Add the risotto and stir to make sure each grain is covered in oil. This should take 3-4 minutes. Add 1 ladle of hot stock, stir until it has evaporated, now continue the process until the risotto is creamy and cooked al dente, about 20 minutes. In a separate sauté pan, cook the sausage until well browned. Add the shrimp and the wine and cook over high heat until the wine evaporated and the shrimp are just done. Season as you like. Combine the two, or plate the risotto and garnish with shrimp and sausage for a more attractive presentation.

In the old days this was a popular dish for fishermen on the Gulf Coast. All you needed was a package of dried spaghetti, a few tomatoes and a big handful of the shrimp you just caught.

SHRIMP BOAT SPAGHETTI

1 pound fresh shrimp

1 large can whole tomatoes

1/2 cup good red wine

1 small chopped onion

1 small chopped bell pepper

3-4 cloves chopped garlic

Red pepper flakes and salt

Olive oil as needed

Prepare the pasta according to package directions, drain and toss in a little good olive oil. Sauté the onion in a little oil, along with a good pinch or two of red pepper flakes for 5 minutes, add the bell pepper and cook for 5 more minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more. Add the wine and reduce by half, then add the can of whole tomatoes. Break them up a bit for a fork. Simmer slowly for at least 1 hour, longer if you have the time. Sauté the shrimp in a little oil for just two minutes. Add the sauce to the pan with the shrimp, combine. Plate the pasta, top with shrimp and sauce and serve at once.

This really is a delightful recipe. It is borrowed in part from "The Classic Italian Cookbook," by famed cookbook author Marcella Hazan, the most important Italian cookbook in my collection.

ITALIAN-STYLE SHRIMP ANTIPASTO

1 stalk celery

1 whole carrot

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup lemon juice

Freshly ground black pepper

Salt

1 pound large peeled shrimp

Ice bath

Simmer the celery, carrot, vinegar and a big pinch of salt for 15 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook just until done, no more than 2 minutes. Immediately plunge the shrimp into an ice bath. Combine the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and let stand for 15 minutes. Add the shrimp and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour. Serve with crusty French bread for dipping.

Julian Brunt, who comes from a family with deep Southern roots, writes the Coast Cooking column that appears in Wednesday's Sun Herald and for a blog at sunherald.com. He is a food writer and photographer with regular columns also in magazines.

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