America's favorite seafood? Shrimp. It's easy to see why: Shrimp are available fresh or frozen, shell-on and peeled, raw and cooked. Shrimp lend themselves to countless dishes: curries, gumbos, kebabs, stir fries.
Louisiana is the major source for domestic shrimp. The state's shrimp industry was socked hard by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, as chef John Besh noted in his book, My New Orleans (written before the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico), and it has been battered by cheaper foreign competition.
For Besh and others, shrimp is more than a food; it's a way of life.
"It's not just the critters we need to protect here but also the spirit of our shrimping community," Besh wrote.
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The region's shrimpers are the equivalent of the family farm to Besh. "In our neck of the woods, that means everything," he said in a telephone interview. Besh, who will be one of the celebrity chefs at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and whose restaurants include August, Luke, Domenica and Besh Steak, is not the only New Orleans chef who is gung-ho on the local product.
"I think it's important to know where the shrimp are from because I personally think the gulf shrimp are the tastiest and the best," said Susan Spicer, who, as chef/owner of Bayona restaurant, has made a reputation for using underused and underappreciated fish species on her menus.
In terms of having environmental credibility, wild and farmed shrimp from the United States and Canada get the nod from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program. Seafood Watch recommends avoiding shrimp from other countries.
Which shrimp is which? Customers should ask at restaurants and retail stores, said Sheila Bowman, outreach director for the California-based program.
"The seafood supply chain has good information available that will tell you how it was caught, where it was caught," she said. "If a restaurant or a retailer can't tell you, it's because they haven't made it a priority to understand or know about the information."
"Not all shrimp are created equal," Besh said. "Domestic shrimp are much more scrutinized. Take the Gulf of Mexico for instance, where the shrimping season has just begun. Never have there been waters more controlled or tested on such a regular basis. They are making sure shrimp caught in these waters are not polluted." Of course, as the gulf situation keeps unfolding, new advisories or warning could be issued.
Besh offers tips on what to look for:
■ Dark brown heads, legs or tails can mean old shrimp. The color should be light, "almost transparent in a way," Besh said.
■ Use fresh shrimp immediately, if possible, or within a day.
■ Whole, fresh head-on shrimp should have antennae attached; shrimp without them were probably frozen.
Besh said shrimp should smell "fresh and briny from the sea." Perform a "sniff test" at the counter, if you like.
■ Buy shrimp with the shells on; use them to make a shrimp stock for use in recipes.
"Shrimp shells have more flavor than the actual shrimp meat itself," Besh said. Here's his simple recipe: "Toast the shells in olive oil; add onion, garlic and celery. Cover with water and cook 45 minutes."
Frozen shrimp can be as good as fresh, Besh said. He prefers shell-on shrimp because they're less prone to freezer burn. He also prefers to thaw the shrimp himself when he's ready to use them, rather than buy thawed shrimp at the market.
Avoid precooked shrimp, Besh said. With precooked shrimp, "I can't control it. I'm at the whim of someone else cooking my food."
Develop a relationship with a reputable fish dealer who cares about the freshness and quality of the product.
Susan Spicer of Bayona restaurant in New Orleans serves this shrimp with black bean cakes prepared the night or morning before she plans to serve the dish.
Grilled shrimp with coriander sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon chili powder
¼ teaspoon ground red pepper
16 medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails left on
1 shallot, finely chopped
½ cup white wine
½ teaspoon grated orange zest
¼ cup orange juice
2 tablespoons sherry wine vinegar
½ teaspoon ground coriander
5 tablespoons butter, softened
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
¼ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
To make shrimp, combine olive oil, ground coriander, salt, chili powder and red pepper in a medium bowl. Add shrimp; toss. Refrigerate while you make coriander sauce. Soak four 6-inch skewers in hot water.
For sauce, place shallot, wine, orange zest and juice, vinegar and coriander in a small saucepan; heat to a simmer over medium heat. Cook about 20 minutes, until liquid is reduced to about 3 tablespoons. Whisk in softened butter by the spoonful until sauce is emulsified and creamy. Stir in cilantro; stir in salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm.
Prepare a grill or broiler for high heat. Place four shrimp on each skewer. Grill or broil shrimp until just cooked through, 2-3 minutes a side. Drizzle with the sauce.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 192 calories, 18 g. fat, 81 mg. cholesterol, 3 g. carbohydrates, 5 g. protein, 198 mg. sodium, 0 g. fiber.
Restaurateur Ralph Brennan prefers using jumbo shrimp with heads and tails left on for this dish from his New Orleans Seafood Cookbook, but he writes that "somewhat smaller ones can be used in a pinch." We used about half the vinaigrette; refrigerate the remainder for salads.
Garlic lemon shrimp
For the citrus vinaigrette:
½ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons key lime juice
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh garlic
1¼ cups extra-virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
1⁄8 teaspoon black freshly ground pepper
For the shrimp:
¼ cup olive oil
30 jumbo shrimp, peeled, deveined
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 lemons, halved
For the vinaigrette, mix parsley, lemon and lime juices, and garlic in a large bowl. Gradually add olive oil in a thin, steady stream, whisking constantly until all is incorporated and the mixture looks creamy. Whisk in salt and pepper. Refrigerate overnight in a covered container.
For the shrimp, heat olive oil in a large skillet over high heat until just short of smoking, about 2 minutes. Add shrimp in a single layer as much as possible. Sprinkle salt and pepper over shrimp. Cook, without stirring, 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium-high; turn shrimp. Cook until pink, about 3 minutes.
Add 1½ cups vinaigrette to the pan. Cook until vinaigrette just begins to bubble and shrimp are barely done, about 45 seconds, moving shrimp around with a spoon so the vinaigrette flows evenly around all the shrimp. Remove from heat; let the shrimp sit in the pan 30 seconds; pour the shrimp and sauce into a large shallow pasta bowl or serving platter. Garnish with lemon halves.
Makes 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving (using half of the vinaigrette): 311 calories, 32 g. fat, 54 mg. cholesterol, 1 g. carbohydrates, 6 g. protein, 306 mg. sodium, 0 g. fiber.
This recipe from chef John Besh's My New Orleans cookbook is designed for a "typical" Sunday supper at his house. You can always halve the ingredients to make enough for 6 to 8 people.
"Traditionally a roux- and tomato-based dish, shrimp Creole in my new version has Vietnamese influences," Besh writes. "It's spicy and sweet, full of herbs and flavor."
5 pounds jumbo Louisiana or wild American shrimp, peeled, deveined
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh lemongrass
½ cup olive oil, divided
3 yellow onions, diced
10 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 rib celery, diced
1 bell pepper, red, green or yellow, seeded, diced
5 pounds overripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
Leaves from 2 sprigs basil, chopped
Leaves from 1 sprig mint, chopped
2 cups long-grain rice, cooked
Put shrimp into a large bowl; season with salt and pepper. Mix in lemongrass. Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a large deep skillet over medium heat. Add shrimp; cook, stirring and tossing, until they turn pink, about 2 minutes. Remove shrimp from pan; set aside.
Add remaining ¼ cup olive oil, onions, garlic, celery and bell pepper. Cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Add tomatoes. Reduce heat to medium-low. Heat to a simmer; add bay leaf, allspice and red pepper flakes. Simmer 10 minutes.
Put shrimp back in skillet; add basil and mint. Cook until warm, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. If the sauce tastes too tart, add a little sugar to balance the flavor. Remove bay leaf. Serve over rice.
Makes 12 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 259 calories, 9 g. fat, 244 mg. cholesterol, 18 g. carbohydrates, 27 g. protein, 425 mg. sodium, 3 g. fiber.