Thursday, January 05, 2006

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.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like to top prawns, unpeeled, with lots and lots and lots of chopped garlic, sprinkle some salt, and steam them in a wok. Then peel them as I eat and be messy about it. This is probably my favourite way to eat prawns. Simple and fresh.

11:15 PM  
Blogger Barbara Fisher said...

You figured out why I don't put shrimp in my pad thai--you can't taste the shrimp as much.

Though, you can slip a bit of shrimp sauce or shrimp paste into the seasoning paste of the pad thai and get a good sthrimp flavor. You just have to be able to stand the smell of the paste or sauce in a hot wok. It is -very- strong. So strong that I used to be scared of it, until I figured out that without it, certain Thai dishes just didn't taste right.

I have two favorite shrimp dishes. One is a dish that my beloved chef Huy made years ago that I have still not forgotten. They were stir fried in the shell, with the most delectable sauce--spicy, sweet and sour. I think he put ketchup in the sauce, but oh, they were finger-licking good. Another waitress and I nearly arm-wrestled over the last one. We ended up splitting it.

My other favorite is shrimp in the shell Baltimore style--boiled in Old Bay and beer, with a dipping sauce of the reduced beer mixture and butter.

Oh. My. GOD! That is too good for words.

7:04 AM  
Blogger Sinner said...

For more shrimp fun, here is my Creole.

11:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't it great that shrimp are now affordable? I buy those 2 lb. bags too. I am also partial to the Old Bay and beer style.

I save all shrimp shells in the freezer, after peeling, because if I'm in the mood to fuss a bit (it's not really all that much fuss)-I am crazy for shrimp bisque. It is probably most often served as a dinner party-type starter, but I actually like it best as the main supper dish, with some crusty bread and salad and a glass of muscadet. No chance of losing the shrimp taste there.

It's pretty popular with family and friends around here.

1:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, barbara fisher and lindy, I can't resist commenting on Baltimore style shrimp. Here in Crisfield, MD, some folks eat that this way: peel it, dip it in a tad of melted butter (or Whirl, the best of the fake butters), then just barely touch it to some Old Bay type seasoning before enjoying. You can accomplish this handily with the saucer for a teacup: melted butter or Whirl in the center, seasoning around the edges. Pure shrimp enjoyment! And yes, the shrimpiest tasting shrimp are, well, shrimpy - not those 4 oz monsters whose proper place in life is to present crabmeat stuffing.

3:46 PM  
Blogger mzn said...

Thanks for the tips, everyone. Everything sounds insanely delicious. And I believe Lindy's is the first food-wine-pairing suggestion in the comments of this blog. That seems like an occasion worthy of at least a virtual toast.

Doug: would more than a tad of butter be out of the question?

5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, butter. When I'm feeling especially immortal, I use more. When I'm feeling mortal (hung over, for instance), less ;)

6:11 PM  
Blogger Helen said...

Hey there mzn!

Your shrimp pad thai sounds excellent. I love the brining trick. I learned it a while ago from Ming Tsai's book and it works like a charm. By the way, almost none of US ever gets fresh shrimp -- coast or not. In New England, we get wild Maine shrimp fresh for about 2 weeks a year. That's it. I believe that the only part of US that gets fresh shrimp on regular basis is Louisiana. Luckily, shrimp freeze much better than fin fish, so even frozen shrimp can taste good.


9:52 PM  
Blogger Margaret Polaneczky, MD (aka TBTAM) said...

I too love the simple shrimp appetizer. I prefer mine sprinkled with lots of kosher salt and pepper, sauteed in a bit of peanut oil. I serve them warm right out of the pan with a lemon mayonnaise sauce.

Another great simple shrimp appetizer is garlic shrimp tapas. I've never made them, but love to eat them at tapas bars. The best part is dipping the bread in the pan to sop up the garlic oil after you've eaten the shrimp.

PS Thanks for your comments on my site.

3:50 PM  

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