Cooking Maine Shrimp

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Small, sweet, delicately pink Maine shrimp (Pandalus borealis) are a winter miracle anywhere north of Boston but little known in the rest of the country. In the Washington area, they can be found at BlackSalt Fish Market (4883 MacArthur Blvd., 202-342-9101) for $4.99 per pound; call to confirm availability.

In Maine, apart from Port Clyde Fresh Catch distribution, they are mostly sold along roadsides from the backs of pickup trucks and vary in price from $1.50 to $3 or even $4 a pound. (The more expensive shrimp have had their heads removed and may be peeled, too.)

Maine shrimp are small: about 40 to a pound with their heads on, maybe 60-count if you're buying just the tails, or what the fishermen call "picked shrimp."

Whenever possible, I like to get my shrimp with their shells and heads on as a guarantee of freshness. The heads break away easily, and peeling is easy once you get the rhythm. They do not need to be deveined. The roe, which varies in color from bright blue to gray, is tasty, but many cooks remove it for appearance's sake. Save the heads and shells (and the roe) to make a savory shrimp broth (see recipe). If you're not using it right away, you can freeze the broth and add it to future chowders or seafood stews. The shrimp are of course best fresh, but you can freeze them, too, for up to a month.

But why, you may ask, is there so much roe? Why are all these shrimp females? It's a curious aspect of the Maine shrimp's life story that it matures as a male, then transforms itself into an egg-laden female at the moment in its life span when it's time to move inshore to spawn. So all Maine shrimp end up as females, even though they all began as males.

Cooking Maine shrimp isn't difficult, but, because of the tender nature of their flesh, less is decidedly more: They are all too easy to overcook. A quick dip in boiling water or a mere flash in a pan of hot oil is sufficient to cook them through. In fact, many Maine shrimp fans find the greatest pleasure is raw shrimp, perhaps marinated briefly, to firm up the flesh. Old-fashioned Maine cooks like me agree that the best way to serve a mess of shrimp is simply boiled (half a minute is plenty of time, done in batches to avoid overcooking), quickly drained and turned out on a kitchen table covered with newspaper. Add a dipping sauce as simple as extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice or as complex as Vietnamese nuoc cham (fish sauce with garlic, chili peppers and lime juice) [Recipe for Nuoc Cham]. Then it's just peel, dip, eat. Oh, and a bottle of Mount Gay rum is also considered de rigueur on the table.

In judging quantities to serve, keep in mind that about half the weight of each shrimp is in the head. Thus, a pound of whole shrimp, with their heads and shells on, will produce six to eight ounces when shelled and beheaded, or enough for two people as a starter or mixed into a risotto or pasta. For main-course shrimp, I count on at least a pound of whole shrimp per person.

-- Nancy Harmon Jenkins

© 2009 The Washington Post Company