If there were such a thing as a national shrimp intervention, this may be a perfect moment for it.
We are a popcorn shrimp nation, enthralled by endless shrimp platters and bulging all-you-can-eat seafood buffets. We are lovers of overstuffed po’boys, steaming bowls of scampi and takeout containers dripping with kung pao.
Loving shrimp is not a bad thing, but increasingly cooks and environmentalists wonder if we love shrimp too much. Or if we are loving the right shrimp.
“Somewhere along the line, shrimp went from being that special thing to something you can gorge yourself on,” said Ken Peterson of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which since 1999 has distributed science-based cheat sheets to help consumers buy sustainable seafood through its Seafood Watch program.
Like so much of the food we eat, shrimp comes with all sorts of issues: Ensuring sustainability. Eating locally. Guarding against disease. And, at the top of the list for many cooks: What tastes best?
Shrimp’s popularity began to rise in the 1970s, along with foreign shrimp farms and inexpensive chain restaurants.
Fancy shrimp cocktails at the “21” Club gave way to small, breaded shrimp at Red Lobster. Somewhere in the early 2000s, shrimp overtook canned tuna as the most popular seafood in America. People eat almost 4 pounds of it a year.
In New Orleans; Jacksonville, Fla.; and other shrimping capitals of the South, shrimp that has been boiled, fried or sauced with butter and Worcestershire is as common as bread. Shrimping is a legacy profession and the lifeblood of hundreds of coastal communities, whose shrimping families have endured hurricanes, environmental disasters and decades of foreign competition.
With foreign supplies in question and local food in vogue, many cooks and shrimpers here say wild American shrimp is the solution. But to assure itself a place at a shrimp-lover’s table, wild American shrimp will have to persuade cooks to embrace its more pronounced flavor, seasonality and higher price.
“It’s incredibly hard to get good shrimp if you are even 100 miles off the coast, but when you start tasting it, you really can’t turn back,” said Whitney Otawka, the chef at Cinco y Diez, Hugh Acheson’s Mexican reincarnation of his well-regarded 5 & 10 in the college town of Athens, Ga.
Otawka, who cooked for a time on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia, sometimes makes the five-hour run to the shore herself, loading up a cooler with Georgia white shrimp from the Atlantic. It readily absorbs whatever sauce or seasoning it encounters. Otawka takes off the soft shells, leaves the heads and tails intact, and cooks them quickly in a hot, muscular chili sauce tempered with mezcal, butter and tomato.
But shrimp are wild creatures, and availability rises and falls on a complex mix of reproductive cycles, government regulations and seasons.
For Gerald Pack, 68, the owner of Safe Harbor Seafood Market and Restaurant near the Florida-Georgia border, the best shrimp come in November and December, after they have matured and moved to the deep water south of Mayport.
“They get a wild taste to them,” he said. “The ones that come out of rivers early in life are not as firm.”
But he does not expect people who have not grown up on good shrimp to understand. “People in Idaho wouldn’t know the difference between imported shrimp and our shrimp,” he said.
U.S. shrimp is not without its problems. It can be expensive and hard to find. What a local resident on the north Florida coast might pick up for under $9 a pound will cost $18.50 at the Lobster Place in New York’s Chelsea Market. Still, Gulf shrimp is the best-seller, said Brendan Hayes, an executive with the company.
At the fish counter or supermarket, shoppers should not turn away from frozen shrimp. But be selective. Make sure the bag says “IQF,” which stand for individually quick frozen. The label will note whether the shrimp is farmed or wild, and where it came from. Buy shrimp in the shell. It protects the product, and peeled shrimp has often been treated with chemical preservatives.
Wild shrimp is attractive to a new generation of cooks. Kristen Baughman, 24, who has just moved from Raleigh, N.C., to New York, is a social media manager who specializes in food. She grew up in South Carolina, and her family’s send-off party featured a Frogmore stew based on her dad’s recipe, the key to which is timing when each ingredient goes into the boiling, seasoned water.
“For my generation, we like to delve into the details of our food, and the whole wild-caught shrimp thing is just so much better,” she said.
And that is not a hard sell to a demographic group that increasingly wants to know more about the provenance, economics and social effect of what they eat.
“Once you really get into shrimping,” she said, “you are going to think maybe I shouldn’t be buying disgusting popcorn shrimp from a fast-food place.”
Still, most wild American shrimp from the Eastern Seaboard, the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf and the waters around Alaska get good marks from seafood monitoring programs, some of which also endorse certain kinds of farmed shrimp, including the small but growing domestic operations.
“If you are going to eat wild shrimp, you have to keep in mind what the ramifications are,” said Paul Greenberg, who recently published “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood.”
The bigger question, he says, is whether four pounds of shrimp per capita a year is too much.
Spiced Salt-Baked Shrimp
Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
3 pounds rock salt
¼ cup whole green cardamom pods
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
4 bay leaves
3 star anise
1 lemon, cut into four wedges
10 sprigs of thyme
2 jalapeño peppers, cut into thick slices
1 head of garlic, outer skin removed and smashed into several pieces
2 pounds medium or large shrimp, about 20 to 25 pieces, with shells and tails on
Cocktail sauce, tartar sauce or melted butter, for serving
1. Heat oven to 475 degrees. In a bowl, add salt, cardamom, peppercorns, cinnamon, bay leaves, anise, two lemon wedges, the thyme, the jalapeños and the garlic and mix well.
2. In a large shallow baking dish, add half the salt mixture. Place in oven for 10 to 12 minutes.
3. Carefully remove pan from oven and set shrimp in a single layer on salt and then cover with remaining, cool salt mixture.
4. Return to oven. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes more, or until shrimp are just cooked through.
5. Serve shrimp in the salt, or move to a platter. Garnish with remaining lemon. Serve with cocktail or tartar sauce or melted butter.
(Adapted from Adam Evans, The Optimist, Atlanta)
Southern Shrimp Scampi
Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 ¼ pound large shrimp, preferably wild American shrimp (16/20 or 21/25 count), peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup wine
6 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1. In a bowl, toss garlic, salt and pepper with the shrimp, which may be refrigerated, well covered, for several hours at this point.
2. When ready to cook, heat oil in a large sauté pan over high heat until it shimmers, then add shrimp and move shrimp around in the pan for about 2 minutes, or until the color just begins to turn from translucent.
3. Remove shrimp, reduce heat to medium-high and add wine, scraping up any bits on the bottom of the pan. Cook for a couple of minutes to reduce, then add butter and swirl the pan to melt it.
4. Put shrimp back into pan, stir about a minute to finishing cooking and add lemon juice.
5. Remove to serving dish, sprinkle with parsley and red pepper flakes, adding more pepper if desired. Serve over rice or pasta or as is.
Pan-Roasted Shrimp With Mezcal, Tomatoes and Arbol Chilis
Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 2 servings as main dish, 4 as an appetizer
For the roasted tomato broth:
2 large Roma tomatoes
3 arbol chilis
1 cup clam juice
For the shrimp:
2 tablespoons clarified butter, or ghee
7 dried arbol chilis
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced white onion
1 tablespoon minced poblano chili
1 pound extra-large shrimp, or about 16, with the tail and the head left on but the body peeled
2 ounces mezcal
1 1/2 cups roasted tomato broth
1 tablespoon lime juice, plus lime wedges for serving
1 tablespoon minced cilantro
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt, depending on salinity of shrimp
1. Make broth: On a hot grill or on a grill pan, roast tomatoes until the skins are charred and soft. On the same grill, toast chilis for a few seconds to soften. Transfer tomatoes and chilis into a blender and purée with clam juice. Strain.
2. Prepare and assemble all ingredients for the shrimp and have them near the stove.
3. Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high and add clarified butter. When it’s hot, add the arbol chilis. Fry lightly until they just begin to darken, which could take less than a minute.
4. Add garlic, onion and poblano chili and sauté for about 1 minute.
5. Add shrimp and cook for about 20 seconds. Add mezcal (if using a gas range, remove pan from the heat as you add the alcohol).
6. Cook for about 30 seconds and add tomato broth.
7. Simmer for another minute and add lime juice, cilantro and butter. Reduce for 30 more seconds, remove from heat and add 1/2 teaspoon salt. Check for seasoning. Add more salt if needed. Serve shrimp and sauce with lime wedges.
(Adapted from Whitney Otawka, Cinco y Diez, Athens, Georgia)