January to April, From Off the Coast of Maine
Late last week a dear friend who lives in New Orleans sent me photographs of her family outdoors in her backyard. No one was looking at the camera. All their interest was directed towards a large cardboard box, lined with plastic and filled with boiled crayfish and shrimp, Cajun sausage and local potatoes cooked in crawfish seasoning. Nearly everyone was wearing a tee shirt, their bare arms reaching into the box as they ate standing up. Her email had the greeting, "it must be spring.…"
With winter weather still keeping others of us company, those photos gave me very serious food (and weather) envy. The next day, while stocking up on cold weather groceries, I found some relief for that envy when I came across fresh Maine shrimp. Stacked in a huge pile on a bed of ice, the shrimp were plump, shiny and rosy pink. It was not on my shopping list, but spotting the shrimp was one of those moments of seeing a food that was both local and in season -- and at $2.99 a pound, I had to buy some knowing I'd figure out something to do with them.
These small wild shrimp are one of winter's best eating pleasures and will change your understanding of what a shrimp can taste like. These are exceedingly sweet and delicate, with a flavor that makes them perfect to eat with as little adornment as a mere pinch of salt (some will even eat them raw although I can't get past the squishy texture thing and so I always cook them).
Unlike the familiar Gulf of Mexico shrimp with their white-gray color, Maine shrimp have a shiny pink-to-red color and are sometimes sold whole with the head and tail intact. And unlike most shrimp, which have been frozen at some point by the time you buy them, Maine shrimp come directly from the cold Atlantic waters, usually off the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts, and are sold fresh and never frozen.
For those of you who pay close attention to where your seafood comes from, wild Maine shrimp are a good sustainable option to the farmed shrimp that come from Southeast Asia or Latin America. That's because Maine shrimp are all wild and caught either by trawler or in traps.
Local markets sell Maine shrimp for anywhere from about $2.99 to $7.99 a pound. A pound will produce enough for two servings if you're using the shrimp in pasta, risotto or as a starter. But if the shrimp will be the main course, you'll want to buy more because they're tiny (about two inches) when raw and after cooking they shrink to about three-quarters of an inch in diameter.
Fish stores get shipments of Maine shrimp erratically and while their season can go from December to April, every year is unique so call ahead before heading to your favorite fish market. When I made calls to check on availability before writing this newsletter I got responses from fish mongers that ranged from, "got lots of 'em," to "the season's just about over," to "more coming in on Thursday." This week I found them available at Fish Tales in Cobble Hill, Sea Breeze (with the best price) in Hell's Kitchen, Citarella's Upper West Side store, Wild Edibles (the only place I found selling the shrimp with the head on), and at Whole Foods, where I bought mine. But check also with your favorite fish market because they might have a shipment coming in. If you find a supply and the price is good, you can buy extra and freeze them, unpeeled, right in their store packaging.
I've noted New York City markets but fresh Maine shrimp are also found in fish markets across the country, especially in the northeast but also in Michigan and other Midwest locations. So ask your fish monger.
The only disadvantage of cooking with these small shrimps is the added labor. That's because they're so tiny -- about 50 shrimp to a pound. But the shells slip off easily making them less work than shelling gulf shrimp, plus there's no vein to remove.
Maine shrimp can hold onto a bit of sand and so I recommend removing the shells before cooking. To remove the shell, take a shrimp in one hand, pinch its tail with your fingers and with your other hand, give a tug and the little, pink shrimp will usually slip out whole. If you've bought ones with heads, just pull that off first before the rest of the shell. Then give a rinse with cool water and with a paring knife, remove any spots or marks.
Remember to always keep shellfish cold and on ice right up to when you cook it. So if it takes you a while to clean your shrimp, keep a bowl of ice in your sink to keep the shrimp very chilled while you're working with them. As with gulf shrimp, don't overcook them because shrimp will become tough and rubbery if cooked for too long. They're done when the flesh goes from translucent to opaque.
Maine shrimp can be cooked in a variety of ways but resist putting them with ingredients that can overwhelm their delicate, sweet taste. For example, the shrimp will work well with garlic or tomatoes but not a pungent cocktail sauce that you might use with meatier gulf shrimp.
A few ways to cook and serve Maine shrimp:
- Boil for 2 minutes in salted water. Drain. Let cool. Use in salads or add to a pasta sauce or a chowder.
- After peeling, "cook" the little raw shrimp in a ceviche by marinating for about two hours in a marinade of citrus juice (lemon, lime, or blood orange are good choices) and jalapeno pepper. They'll be "cooked" when the texture becomes firmer and their appearance is opaque. Toss the shrimp ceviche with tiny pieces of diced red onion and cubes of avocado about the size of the shrimp and drizzle with a little olive oil.
- Quickly sauté the peeled shrimp in olive oil with thin slices of garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes. The shrimp will throw off some liquid, which in about a minute will cook off, leaving the shrimp perfectly coated in the oily garlic and red pepper surface of the fry pan. These can be added to pasta in a version of shrimp scampi or combined with oven-roasted tomatoes. [I cooked mine this way and then scattered the still-warm shrimp on top of a savory tomato and feta cheese tart I had just baked while testing recipes for next week's newsletter which will be about puff pastry.]
- Toss the peeled and boiled shrimp with a little lemon aioli or a mayonnaise to which you've added some lemon juice and Dijon mustard. Use this as the centerpiece of a salad plate or in a sandwich on a fresh ciabatta roll with some sprigs of arugula.
- Make Maine Shrimp Risotto. One pound of Maine shrimp is the perfect amount for a risotto made with 1 1/2 cups of Arborio rice (for 4 servings). Peel the shrimp and hold them aside on a bed of ice while you turn the shells into a shrimp stock. Unlike meat stocks, seafood stocks are not cooked for long periods. This one needs only 40 minutes to simmer:
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 small carrot, peeled and chopped
1/2 celery stalk, chopped
Shells from 1 pound of Maine shrimp
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 small or 1/2 large bay leaf
6 whole black peppercorns
6 cups cold water
- In a large (3 to 4 quart) soup pot combine the olive oil, onion, carrot and celery. Cook over medium-low heat for about 5 to 8 minutes, until the vegetables begin to soften, but not brown.
- Add the shrimp shells and cook over medium heat, stirring continuously, for about 3 minutes, until the pot has a strong shrimp aroma.
- Add the tomato paste and stir until completely combined and melted into the shells, about 1 minute.
- Add the garlic and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Add the thyme, bay leaf, peppercorns and water and bring to a boil. Use a mesh spider or other sieve-like tool or a large spoon to skim off any scum that rises to the top of the water.
- Reduce to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for about 40 minutes.
- Strain through a fine sieve or a colander lined with cheesecloth. Taste and add about 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste.
Transfer the shrimp stock to a saucepan and bring to a very soft simmer so that it is warm when added to the risotto. Or you can let it cool completely and transfer to plastic containers and freeze it for another time.
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