If I could choose only one food to sum up summer's table in the Georgia and Carolina Lowcountry, it would have to be shrimp.
Condensed in their sweet flesh is the very essence of the season and our best compensation for the sauna-like heat that defines our summers. No matter how brutal that heat gets, it never seems quite so bad as long as there are shrimp on the table.
Yes, deepwater white shrimp, imports, and frozen local shellfish can be had at other times of the year. But they can't hold a candle to the intensely flavorful brown creek shrimp that are harvested from our tidal marshes only in the summer. And, needless to say, imports and frozen shellfish can never measure up to freshly caught local shrimp.
Unless you have a shellfish allergy (tragic in itself), going through one of our summers without tasting a single local shrimp would be a true tragedy.
If you're new to the area, here are a few pointers for getting the best from the market and for keeping and cooking them once you get them home:
â€¢ Buy only from a reliable dealer (a locally owned fish market or trusted local fisherman selling out of a cooler on the back of his truck).
â€¢ Brown, gray, and white are loose names for the common local varieties based on their subtle color differences. They're all really gray (except Florida pink shrimp which don't live in our waters).
â€¢ Look for clear, firm shrimp with the clean smell of the sea. If they smell strongly fishy, they're probably not spoiled, but they're not going to be as fresh as you'd like.
â€¢ If you buy directly from a fisherman, they may be sold with the "head" still attached. It's actually the creature's whole body; what we eat is just the tail muscle. Expect to pay a little less than half what you'd pay for headed shrimp, but you'll need to buy roughly twice as much to get the same amount. Don't turn up your nose: It's the best way to ensure freshness and the heads make great stock. Boiled shrimp always taste better when they're cooked with the head still attached.
â€¢ If you don't cook them immediately, promptly refrigerate the shrimp on a bed of ice, and cook them the day you buy them. Make sure they're well-wrapped or your refrigerator (and everything in it) will take on the aroma of a fish market.
â€¢ Cooking shrimp is like applying makeup or practicing religion: Exercising restraint is the better part of wisdom. The instant they curl and turn pink, they're almost there, and when they're opaque to the center (a matter of seconds after they change color), they're done. They rarely take more than 3 minutes, if that long.
Perfect Poached (Boiled) Shrimp
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of ways to cook shrimp, but the best and simplest is simply to boil them in plenty of water. But if you've never done it, you need to know that, like custard sauce and a lot of other things that have boiled in their name, it's a misleading moniker, since they should never, ever actually boil.
The water must be boiling when the shrimp are dropped into it, but adding the shrimp immediately drops the temperature below the boiling point, and it should not be allowed to return to that point once they're in the pot.
Local cooks also argue about whether the poaching water should be seasoned. Some insist that cooking them in salted water will make them tough. I find that so long as you are careful not to overcook them, salting the water doesn't make a difference in tenderness.
The really important thing is to cook them whole, still in their shells, and preferably with their heads still attached.
For up to 5 pounds of shrimp, bring 4-5 quarts water to a rolling boil. You may stir in a small handful of sea salt if you like. Add the shrimp and cook until they're just curled and pink. Don't let the water return to a boil. Local shrimp diva Bonnie Gaster says they're done as soon as the first shrimp floats.
They'll keep cooking for a minute after they're drained, so drain quickly and spread them until they're cool enough to handle. Some cooks toss them with ice to stop the cooking more immediately.
Pile them onto a platter and let each diner peel his own or, if they're intended for a cocktail buffet platter, salad, shrimp paste, or another recipe that calls for cooked shrimp, peel them and proceed with the recipe.
Gamberi al' Aglio
(Shrimp with Garlic and Hot Pepper)
This is a nice little recipe to have in your arsenal. It can be served alone as a main dish or appetizer, with crusty bread for sopping the juice, or as a sauce for linguine or thin spaghetti.
Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 as an appetizer or pasta sauce
1-1/4 pounds medium to large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, to taste
2 finely chopped anchovy filets or about 2 teaspoons anchovy paste
4 small, slender scallions, thinly sliced, white and green parts separated
3/4 cup dry white vermouth
1 pound linguine
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped oregano
2 lemons, cut into wedges
1. If not using as sauce, leave shrimp whole. If using as pasta sauce, cut them into 2-3 pieces and bring 4 quarts water to a rolling boil.
2. Put oil, garlic, hot pepper, and anchovies in large, heavy-bottomed skillet or frying pan over medium-high heat. Saute until garlic is fragrant, about 5-10 seconds after it begins sizzling. Add white parts of scallions and toss until scallion translucent and garlic is barely beginning to color, about 1/2 minute.
3. Add vermouth, stirring and scraping pan, bring to boil, and cook, stirring often, until reduced by 2/3. If not using to sauce pasta, skip to step 5. If using as pasta sauce, turn off heat.
4. If using as pasta sauce, stir small handful salt into pot of boiling water and stir in pasta. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente using package suggestions as rough guide. When pasta is almost done, reheat skillet over medium-low heat.
5. Add shrimp to pan, raise heat, and season with salt if needed. Tossing constantly, cook until shrimp are just curled and pink. Add herbs and scallion greens and turn off heat. Toss well.
6. If using as pasta sauce, drain pasta and immediately toss with sauce. If not serving with pasta, spoon into rimmed serving dishes and serve warm or at room temperature with lemon wedges.
Margarita Shrimp Skewers
I shared this dish during a special event featuring Le Creuset cookware at Kitchenware Outfitters of Savannah a month or so ago and it was so good that I've added it to my own shrimp repertory.
Serves 6-8 as an appetizer
1 tablespoon tequila
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 small shallot, minced
1 large clove garlic, minced
Â¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or to taste)
2 tablespoon chopped cilantro
Â¼ cup olive oil
1Â½ pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined if desired
3 limes, cut into wedges
1. Whisk together tequila, lime juice, and large pinch salt in mixing bowl. Stir in shallot, garlic, pepper flakes, and cilantro, then slowly whisk in olive oil. Add shrimp and toss to mix. Marinate 30 minutes. While shrimp marinates, soak small bamboo skewers in cold water for 30 minutes. Drain shrimp, reserving marinade, and thread shrimp and lime wedges, alternating, onto skewers.
2. Prepare grill with hardwood coals. When coals are ready, put in enameled iron grill pan or skillet that will hold shrimp skewers in single layer. When hot, brush with olive oil. Add shrimp to pan, cover grill, and cook, turning skewers once, until shrimp are just cooked through, about 2-5 minutes.
Helen Chen's Coral and Jade
(Shrimp with Snow Peas)
From Chinese cooking authority Helen Chen, whose mother, Joyce Chen, was to Chinese cooking in America what Julia Child and Marcella Hazan were to French and Italian cooking. The fanciful name is of course derived from the lovely pink and green color of the two main ingredients. Adapted from "Easy Chinese Stir-Fries by Helen Chen" (Wiley/2009).
1 teaspoon grated fresh peeled ginger
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2-1 teaspoon salt, to taste
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/4 pound snow peas, ends snapped off, strings removed, cut in half on diagonal
2 tablespoons tomato ketchup
1 8-ounce can sliced water chestnuts, drained
4 cups cooked white rice
1. In medium bowl, whisk together ginger, wine cornstarch, and 1/4-teaspoon salt. Add shrimp and mix well.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in wok or stir-fry pan over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Test by dipping end of snow pea in oil (it should sizzle). Add peas and stir until they just turn darker green, about 30 seconds. Do not scorch by heating oil too hot. Remove peas and spread on plate.
3. Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to pan and heat over high heat. Stir up shrimp mixture, add to pan, and cook, stirring constantly, until shrimp turn opaque and pink, 1-2 minutes. Stir in ketchup, water chestnuts, and 1/4 teaspoon salt and stir-fry about 30 seconds. Return peas to pan and mix 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until peas are hot through. Remove from heat, taste, and adjust salt. Transfer to serving dish and serve immediately with rice.
Camarones al Ajillo Rancho Alegre
(Shrimp in Garlic and Wine Sauce)
From friend and local restaurateur Juan Manuel Rodriguez (proprietor of Rancho Alegre on MLK Boulevard), this handsome dish owes its South American/Caribbean flair to sweet paprika and Sazon Completa (Complete Seasoning), a Latin-American seasoning blend available in the ethnic food section of most supermarkets. Adapted from my book, "Savannah Chef's Table" (Globe Pequot Press/2013).
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped garlic
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 pounds large shrimp, peeled (and deveined if desired)
Sazon Completa (see notes above), to taste
1 cup dry white wine
Sweet paprika, to taste
4 leaves romaine or other leaf lettuce
4 cups hot cooked white rice
1. Melt butter over medium-low heat. Add garlic and 2 tablespoons parsley and simmer gently until garlic is softened, about 3-4 minutes. Add shrimp and toss until almost done (turning pink but still not quite opaque), about 1 minute.
2. Season generously to taste with Sazon Completa, stir, and slowly add wine. Raise heat, bring it to a simmer, and cook until shrimp are done and wine has lost sharp, alcoholic aroma. Turn off heat, sprinkle with paprika to taste, and stir.
3. Line 4 individual gratin dishes with lettuce leaves and spoon shrimp over them. Sprinkle with remaining parsley and serve at once with white rice.