Shrimp my way
Tonight I made Barbara's pad Thai for dinner, sticking with her general procedures and ingredients but subbing shrimp for chicken. (We had chicken the other day and shrimp was on sale.) I didn't make the shrimp cocktail you see right there in addition to shrimp pad Thai. I'm all for starch with your starch but shrimp with your shrimp would be the bad kind of decadent. No, the picture is just to illustrate "shrimp" in absence of that pesky cable to connect camera to computer. Today I thought I should have just bought a replacement but by now the original is in the mail and anyhow, I told myself the other day, blogging sans pictures could be an productive constraint. Yeah. Actually, I'll come back to the picture at the end of the post.
I don't share the American supershrimpophilia. Shrimp are the favorite sea creature of the USA and the USA is world's largest per capita consumer of sea creatures. This makes shrimp the best-loved seafood of the seafood-loving country nonpareil. We eat more shrimp even than canned tuna, which was the favorite until 2001. Unlike canned tuna shrimp signifies luxury and good times, though now that you can get lots of it cheap at chain restaurants it would seem likely to be on the way down in status if not consumption. I like shrimp but I also like squid, mussels, clams, oysters, crab, octopus (put some in my New Year's Eve fish stew, baby ones, both cute and yummy) and every variety of fish I've ever tasted, provided it was fresh and well prepared. What little lobster I've tried was pretty great. I've had bad experiences with scallops treated with some heinous preservative chemical and haven't touched any for a couple of years, but I'm sure I would love good scallops too. They look great when TV chefs cook them and when my dining companions order them in restaurants. I just don't love shrimp any more than any of these other things.
At the Milwaukee Public Market last weekend the shrimp on sale varied in price wildly: U-10 shrimp (less than 10 to a pound) were going for $17.95/lb. These are jumbo shrimp not much smaller than a banana. Medium shrimp, 31-40 count, were going for $4.95/lb. These are perfectly bite size. I like the smaller ones but some people evidently think size matters. It's their money but I'm not impressed. I never buy the big guys so I wouldn't know if they're any good, but my sources tell me medium shrimp taste better. (I never buy the really little shrimp. Should I?)
I almost always buy shrimp frozen in 2 lb. bags. When they're on sale they cost $10.99 per bag. This makes the market price pretty good but there's still an advantage to buying frozen. In Milwaukee or any other place that's more than a bike ride from the ocean, all the shrimp starts out frozen and if you defrost it yourself you know it's "fresh." I don't know that I have ever had shrimp that was truly fresh. Probably not. Maybe it's just as well, because if I knew how good truly fresh shrimp taste I might not want to eat the frozen kind. But these days the shrimp are frozen individually, not in a block, and on the boat soon after being caught. Eating these is better than eating never-frozen shrimp that have been sitting around too long. (I think I learned all this reading Bittman's cookbooks, so to him as ever, all glory.)
Shrimp defrost very quickly and I usually speed it up even more by dropping them frozen into cold water and leaving them in the fridge. Shrimp don't seem to lose moisture this way and there's an added advantage: if you salt the water they pick up flavor. I always brine shrimp before cooking them, sprinkling table salt (not kosher salt) in while they defrost. I have never measured how much I put in but I would guess a couple of tablespoons to a few cups of water.
In my experience, with medium shrimp it's virtually impossible to undercook. When they curl up and turn pink they're cooked. I threw them into the pad Thai tonight just ahead of the noodles and they were done well before the dish was finished. I didn't worry too much about them overcooking, though, because with a brine they absorb some moisture along with the salt. This is another advantage of brining.
Finally: shrimp my way is not shrimp in pad Thai. They tasted fine but got lost a bit in the strong mix of flavors. Chiles, shallots, garlic, ginger, tamarind, fish sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, lime juice, peanuts, shrimp. It's all a bit much. I still haven't found a better way of making shrimp than shrimp cocktail. Shrimp, defrosted in brine, sprinkled with Old Bay seasoning, lubricated with a little olive oil, broiled for just a minute or so a side, chilled, and dipped in a cocktail sauce of ketchup and horseradish. That's the best. Anything else is excess. (This is a reprise of something I blogged about at the end of October, which is where you've seen that picture before if you were wondering.)