January 1, 1970During the BB&T Charleston Food and Wine festival, Chef Bob Waggoner of The Charleston Grill served a group of media people an unusual first course. Three shrimps each were alone on a plate, shell removed but not the heads. They were white, pink and gray. We were invited by our host, Eddie Fisher of Wild American Shrimp, to see which shrimp we liked better, and to eat the bodies and suck the juices from the heads. We did as we were told. The shrimp were succulent and the goodness from the heads was delicious as well.
Everyone relished the tender crustations, and the heads as well. There were no losers. I liked them all, but preferred the pink if I was pushed to make a decision. Mimi Sheraton, famed food writer for the New York Times, preferred the white. And so it went around the tables. No one shrimp was the most popular shrimp. But our hosts had made their point. Shrimp differ, and can be better with their heads on, that little added sweetness and juiciness adding to the experience.
In my early life, shrimp and fish had come headless. Then questions arose - Why are crawfish heads sucked and relished but shrimp not? Why does lobster get served with the head on and not shrimp? Why did you get shrimp head on in Mexico but not in the U.S.? Why do Europeans serve their crayfish with the heads on?
Turns out there is no reason at all except our customs. (Dr. Duke Hagerty adamantly insists he always eats the whole shrimp, head, shell and all. I’ve seen him do it. And not just the tiny creek shrimp, either. He’s been doing it all his life, he says.)
Chef Waggoner told us the shrimp were “poached in butter.” Not sautéed. (Although he does sauté them on occasion as well.) Where have I been that I didn’t know people poached shrimp swimming in butter, cooking them over low heat or in the oven? What else didn’t I know about cooking shrimp? (A modest disclaimer – I wrote the shrimp section of the South Carolina Encyclopedia spending a lot of time reading up and on the phone with a wonderful scientist from Clemson. I’m always finding out more that I don’t know.) I never thought about people cooking shrimp in milk, or coconut milk, either.
Waggoner finished up by telling how he made shrimp stock. Another shock. On occasion I have browned fish bones to make brown fish stocks and sauces, as well as lobster shells for lobster bisque. But I have always made a “white” shrimp stock. That is, a stock made from just the shell and the heads cooked in water or perhaps water and wine. (It looks pale pink.)
Not Chef Waggoner, who has a cookbook coming out shortly. He sautés or “browns” (they turn rosy pink) the shrimp heads and shells in a pan on the burner or in the oven, then adds liquid to continue cooking to make a stock. Strained, it has the richness of bisque when he is finished, having added bits of browned vegetables to add more flavor. His way was much better than my old way. Shrimp stock is frozen easily.
This week, I’ve tried flavoring water (with or without a splash of wine or lemon juice) infused with lemon grass, ginger and kafir lime leaves, cooking them together for half an hour or so. After straining and cooling, I added uncooked shrimp, marinating it (refrigerated and covered) for as long as I had time. The resulting shrimp, poached later either in the same water or removed and sautéed or “poached” in butter flavored with the same ingredients, had delicate but definite infusions of those ingredients.
Finally, I tried cooking peeled and unpeeled shrimp in a deep pot of the water, to see the difference in cooking time, flavor and texture. The shrimp, which usually float to the top of the water when cooked, were much larger and tasty when peeled after cooking than the same size one added to the pot unpeeled. (See picture.) I always knew they were more moist, but had no idea I was sacrificing size as well. The peeled shrimp curled tightly, which meant it was overcooked, even though cooked in much less time. The unpeeled shrimp didn’t curl up.
When is shrimp cooked? Although the customary standard is to say it is done “when it turns pink”, small shrimp that turn pink and pink shrimp that are already pink can be overcooked if turning color is your guide. Instead, when the shell sections separate from the body, and the shrimp beginning to curl, its cook. Always undercook rather than overcook, when in doubt.