Foodie Tuesday: Oh, *Yeah???* Who are YOU Calling a Shrimp?!

Photo: Devil-may-care ShrimpQuite the oxymoron, Jumbo Shrimp. Prawns, perhaps, are better named. Regardless of their size, good, sweet shrimp are no inconsiderable things when it comes to taste. But no matter what I call them—shrimp, prawns, mudbugs, mini-lobsters, or, Shellfish (though, to be sure, they neither have shells in the strict sense nor are they fish) their proper name in my personal lexicon is Delectable. So they appear, disappear, and are invited back to the table time and again chez moi.

My spousal-person, understandably enough, prefers that I keep the decoration of said sea-life to a modest few iterations, rather than going too crazy with innumerable variations on dishes and seasonings he may not fully trust, but he has been known to try a new style or two and adopt them into the canon. For example, I never essayed anything resembling a dish alla Fra Diavolo (Italian food fans will recognize the standard American interpretation of the style as being served with spicy tomato sauce that is indeed devilishly good) until quite recent years, but it’s requested about as often as my also-American interpretation of a good prawn curry. Both of these share top billing around our house with chilled shrimp of whatever size is most freshly available, served with little more than fresh avocado, lemon juice, and salt. Maybe a couple of olives on the side, or the lemon juice amped up with a zip of salsa. No need for much bling; the shrimp’s the thing.Photo: Devilish Tasty, Those

Of course, you do know that I am a meddler. I will fiddle and foozle endlessly with any ingredient that so captures my fancy, and so it is with shrimp and all of their crustacean kin when I’m not in the mood for The Usual. At least many of the best ways of serving shellfish and their ilk are ripe for the tweaking, so I needn’t go so far afield in my experiments that my esteemed fella can’t happily dig into a relatively unsullied meal of whatever form he prefers, so I can roam a little, gastronomically, without losing sight of the guy across the table from me. Shrimp are good that way. Shrimp fried rice, for example, can be sweet, sour, spicy, or salty; Japanese-inflected or Thai-influenced, Chinese-inspired or Polynesian in character, and one way or another, we can doctor the dish at table to suit our individual tastes just fine.Photo: Peas Don't Take My Shrimp Fried Rice

And, since we live in a region that’s rarely cool enough for our comfort during about ten months of the year, shrimp salads are a good, refreshing change of pace from time to time as well. A lovely green salad topped with shrimp is marvelous whether it’s complemented with taco salad ingredients, fried in coconut coating to sit atop a jazzy heap of shredded Napa cabbage and citrus mélange and sprinkled with black sesame seed, or as the star protein in a Cobb salad, deconstructed into neat little arrangements of the classic Cobb ingredients or just piled hither and thither—no matter what the urge, shrimp are a fair bet to fulfill it. So says my pantry (via the best tinned tinies I can find), my fridge (when the season is right) and my freezer (as often as I can lay hands on those swell swimmers that were pulled straight from the ocean into the deep freeze).

And so says my stomach. Amen.Photo: Cobbled-together Cobb

Foodie Tuesday: Not the Raw Prawn

It should be noted that while I prefer my prawns cooked in various ways, I would trust a sushi master to feed me uncooked ones without (as my Oz friend and colleague John taught me in grad school would be a less kindly gesture) either giving me or coming the proverbial ‘raw prawn‘. Old-school colloquialisms aside, it can be a great kindness to feed me well prepared prawns in a number of guises, as they’re not only tasty protein sources but well respected in a number of the world’s great cuisines. I’ve had the good fortune to live and/or vacation in a few places noted for particular kinds of prawns and shrimp, and when they’re ‘done up right’ I would be hard pressed to resist them as a top choice for eating.

In their compact and sturdy form they do lend themselves to skewering and grilling or to the great dive-in-and-get-messy kind of eating in a traditional Shrimp Boil or rekefest (the classic Cajun and Norwegian shrimp-eating parties, respectively), and I’ve certainly been served spectacular ones whole in dreamlike paellas, gumbos, cioppinos and other dishes. No complaints here! But when it comes to fixing things myself, I’m more inclined to think my fellow diners might like to be as lazy as I am, given the chance, and prefer most often to peel and devein shrimp and prawns before using them in my cooking. There’s no reason not to use the shells then and there for cooking up in a great batch of broth, of course, so I don’t see the necessity of wasting them, but I love to be able to eat meals unencumbered by the slowing process of dressing out the food unless it’s really a necessary part of the experience. Once the critters are cleaned, the meal prep is just as easy anyway, and if broth is on hand as a result, it’s the perfect base for an enriched soup or sauce in the bargain.

So what do I use these splendid shellfish for, finally? Nearly anything is good with such a sweet, clean taste and firm yet delicate texture. Shrimp puree, as I’ve mentioned before, is a fantastic binder for fish cakes because they don’t dull down the flavor like a starch binder (flour or crumbs, typically) would do, and though I haven’t tested it yet I’m certain it’d make a grand seafood soup or sauce thickener as well. But beautiful prawns deserve respect, too, in their unadulterated-yet-naked form, so they feature in a wide variety of dishes chez moi in addition to the aforementioned international classic presentations.

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Butter Prawns—my style—in Basmati.

Curries probably top the list hereabouts, mainly because both members of the household are fans of curry in a wide range of styles. Many classic Indian and Indian-influenced sauces and dishes, in fact, lend themselves beautifully to showcasing shrimp: butter sauce, mainly seen on American plates napping chicken, is one marvelous option, as are Tandoori-spiced grilling on a skewer, prawns biryani, and prawns simply seared in ghee and garam masala and served with fragrant rice.

Italian cooks, too, have given us a multitude of glorious ways to honor the delicious beauty of these shellfish, not least of all in a beautiful marinara sauce over pasta. If you want any advice or inspiration whatsoever regarding Italian cookery, you can’t do better than to visit my friend Chicago John over at his blog From the Bartolini Kitchens, and you can do your own happy swimming through all of his shrimp- and prawn-related dishes with a quick search there. But despite my reverence for John’s glorious and historically rich cookery, I have been known to dabble in my own variants at times, and think I didn’t do too much harm to the image of the Real Thing. One example of this would be when I make my version of prawns Fra Diavolo, which according to Signore Mario Batali is Italian-American anyway, so I have no compunction about further stretching the idea. For mine, I make a sauce of tomato passata with shallots, a splash of a nice, intense red wine if I’ve got one open, a squeeze of lemon juice, a good grind of black pepper, oregano, basil, and a hit of red pepper flakes, varying the amounts to the tastes of my fellow diners, and finally, warm the prawns in the sauce just until they’re pink and curling like a charming devil’s tail.Fra Diavolo can be a friendly little devil.You who love shellfish equally will know that I could go on rhapsodizing about them and the many ways in which to dress them up and swallow them down, but for now I think that that should be the end of this tale.