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Wednesday, October 4

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For some reason, all the stories I've been hearing and reading lately about the return of the crunchy 17-year cicadas got me to thinking about crustaceans. Specifically, a tasty crustacean known as shrimp. Or is it prawns? Or scampi?

I sought out help to distinguish between shrimp and prawns, and then I got side-tracked reading about scampi. Shrimp and prawns are pretty close to being the same thing. In some areas, shrimp are small and prawns are big, in other areas it's the other way around. Some people think the difference is related to whether they are freshwater or saltwater creatures.

But according to various scientific websites, not food related, there are a couple of differences. On prawns, the first three of the five pairs of legs on the body have small pincers, while shrimp only have two pairs that are claw-like and the first pair is much bigger than the second.

The other major difference is in the way the segments of the shell overlap. Prawn shells are similar to roof tiles. The first overlaps the second, which overlaps the third, and so on. But with shrimp the second segment overlaps the third and the first. It kind of looks like their second segment is a little saddle put on top of the other segments.

How do they differ in taste, since that's why you're all here? There isn't much of a difference. Sure it's like saying all red wine tastes alike, but not really. What matters more to the taste is how fresh they are, how they were handled, and how you cook them. So don't get hung up on the semantics or counting claws and legs -- get hung up on how good they are.

Ask your fishmonger (yep, that's really what they're called) to let you smell a shrimp before you buy it. Does it smell horribly, horribly fishy? Then it may not be the freshest shrimp, but as long as it doesn't have black spots (which means the shrimp was stored at too high of a temperature at some point and bacteria started to form) and as long as it doesn't smell like ammonia (which means that artificial preservatives were probably sprayed on the shrimp) then you're probably OK with it. It's shrimp, so it's going to smell a little bit, but the smellier it is, the less fresh it is.

(Don't be afraid to ask to smell something, whether it be shrimp or a cut of beef. If the person behind the counter is knowledgeable they'll assume you know a bit about what you're doing and may give you some extra tips. If they hem and haw and talk about policy, think of the worst thing that unsafe shrimp can do to your digestive tract and order a pizza for dinner instead. Or simply go somewhere else.)

The other thing that you need to know before you buy your shrimp is which size to get. There are common names like "medium" and "jumbo" and "colossal." But those names aren't regulated. What you really want to pay attention to is the count, or number of shrimp per pound. It's often listed as 41-50 ct. (That's count not carat; while shrimp are good, they've got nothing in common with diamonds.) This means that there are 41-50 shrimp per pound. This size is good for cooking in a sauce, but are a lot of work for shrimp cocktail. "About 100" means there is about 100 shrimp per pound. I've only seen these cooked and peeled. They're good for salads or pizzas, but not eating alone. 21-30 or 31-35 is the size you'll be looking for if you're going to be eating shrimp cocktail. These are large enough that the work you go through to get to the meat is worthwhile. But they're small enough that they're easy to cook evenly, don't dry out, and are flavorful.

Many people think that really large shrimp are better for a shrimp cocktail, but that isn't necessarily true. Sure those 10-15 per pound shrimp look pretty and often come in pretty colors, but since they're bigger they're going to be a bit tougher. I like succulence in my shrimp cocktail.

If you haven't guessed it by now, we're making shrimp cocktail for dinner. Sure you could get those pre-cooked and frozen bags with all the shells removed and just thaw them out. But if you're interested in shrimp that taste delicious, keep reading.

You're going to want to get about 6 oz. of shell-on 31-35 ct.-size shrimp per person. That means that a pound of shrimp will serve 3 people about 10 shrimp. Perfectly reasonable for an appetizer of shrimp cocktail.

Most people are used to throwing the shrimp in a pan of boiling water and then chilling them. Not on my watch. The first thing we're going to do is brine the shrimp.

Brining is simple and easy and works wonders on shrimp -- chicken and other meats, too, but that's another column. A brine consists of liquid, salt, and sugar. For one pound of shrimp, put four cups of water in a saucepan on high heat. After a few minutes you're going to stir in a half cup of sugar and a quarter cup of table salt. Heat the water until all the crystals are dissolved. Now take about 3 trays of ice and put into a large ceramic bowl or pot or even a heavy plastic bowl. Pour the hot water over the ice. Once the ice is melted, drop your shrimp into the water, cover your container with plastic wrap, then put it in the refrigerator for at least half an hour but no more than one hour.

What exactly does a brine do? First, it permits flavor to soak into meat. Second, the sugar and salt work to tenderize meat, which is why this is great with cheaper/tougher cuts of meat. Despite that exoskeleton, which reminds me only faintly of cicadas, shrimp aren't waterproof, and they dry out easily. Brining permits moisture to seep between the shell and the meat, which will create steam, and keep the shrimp tender and help prevent them from overcooking when you grill them. On sticks.

It's not quite "food on a stick" season, but we're getting there. Skewers permit you to put a few shrimp on the grill and not lose them. Why aren't we going to boil them? Because all that flavor that we soaked into them will wash away. There's a lot of flavor in shrimp that just disappears into the water -- more flavor in the water equals less flavor in the shrimp, and since you're throwing away the water, there's no reason to flavor it.

So get a pack of skewers, place the shrimp evenly along the stick, then throw them on the grill for about two minutes. Flip and grill for one to two minutes more. You want the shells to turn pink and you want the meat to be opaque. If you're nervous about undercooking them, sneak one off a skewer that is away from the center of the heat and cut it in half. If it's opaque all the way through, you're ready to serve.

If you decide to make this, but the weather isn't cooperating, you can simply spread the shrimp on your broiling pan. Cook on high for 2 minutes, flip with tongs, and cook for one minute on the other side.

Most people are used to shrimp cocktail being served chilled. I've never had the patience to wait so I just eat them as is. They cool down fairly quickly. But if you are planning ahead and want chilled shrimp, then let them cool on a plate for a few minutes until you can comfortably touch them. Then slide them into a plastic bag, seal it, and then sink them to the bottom of a bowl of ice and water. They'll chill in about 10-15 minutes.

Now you're ready to eat them. But what should you dip them in? Cocktail sauce, of course. But uh-uh, don't go picking up that ready-made bottle that you know you're going to use once and then be amazed that it doesn't mold as it sits in your refrigerator for the rest of the summer. Make your own. Here are two versions:

Spicy version 1:
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup chile sauce
2 tablespoons horseradish
juice from half of one lemon
small sprig of fresh parsley, shopped fine

Mix everything in a bowl and chill. This will get spicier the longer it sits and will last easily for a week or two.

Not so spicy version 2:
1/2 cup ketchup
juice from half of a lemon
1 teaspoon Worchestershire sauce (or steak sauce)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Mix everything together and chill. You can serve horseradish on the side for your spicy friends. Trust me, this is the same stuff that's in those bottles by the seafood counter, and at $4 a bottle versus about $1 for these mixes, I just saved you a couple of bucks.

But before I wrap up with the shrimp, I have to tell you what scampi is. It's Italian for shrimp. That's it, nothing more or less. Most areas of Italy have shrimp in their coastal waters instead of prawns. But of course every time I think scampi, I can almost taste the garlic. So here is another recipe that will serve 4 to 6 people who only plan on kissing each other -- or no one. I do not recommend making this before you go to try to work up the courage to satisfy that spring lust.

Shrimp Scampi
2 pounds of shrimp that are peeled and deveined (your fishmonger might do this for you, but expect to pay for it)
salt and pepper
olive oil
1 small onion, sliced very thinly
2 tablespoons chopped garlic, about 4 large cloves
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup white wine (or sake or vermouth)
1/2 cup of chicken or shrimp stock*
2 tablespoons cold butter
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
a few lemon slice for garnish
Pasta or rice for accompaniment (For timing purposes, toss fettucine into a large pot of boiling water just as you start cooking the shrimp. The pasta should be done at the same time the shrimp are.)

Season the shrimp thoroughly with salt and pepper -- a lot of it will cook off so make sure they're all coated. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of a skillet. Add the shrimp and toss until they just start to turn pink but aren't cooked through. Remove the shrimp to a bowl from the pan. Add the onions and sauté for about three minutes, until they start turning soft. Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds. Now toss in the lemon juice, wine, and stock and boil until it is reduced by half. This should take about five minutes. Add the shrimp and the butter to the pan and stir until the butter has melted. Toss in the parsley, taste for seasoning, and then pour over the rice or pasta.

It's summer, which doesn't last long enough around these parts, and you'd rather spend the time with your friends than slaving away in the kitchen alone. So focus on simple preparations with high-quality items. The simpleness of these two dishes will permit you to wow your friends and spend time with them.

*To make shrimp stock, keep the shells and place them in a small saucepan. Just barely cover them with water (should be about a cup), and simmer them on low for about 30 minutes. Strain out the shells and you now have a flavorful and delicious stock.

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Bruce Pattison / May 25, 2004 4:33 PM

I grew up around 31st & Pulaski, then I was 11 my family moved to California.
I've been looking for a GOOD Bohemian Butcher Shop on the WEB inorder to buy some favorite sausages.
Any suggestions?

brian / May 26, 2004 8:51 AM

When I asked a fishmonger at a farmer's market about the difference, he suggested that prawns can change sex during their lifetime, and that's one of the difference between the two. Dunno if that's correct or not.

Excellent article. I'm not such a huge fan of seafood, but it was an interesting read.

Lenka / May 27, 2004 10:52 AM

Excellent shrimp tips! I never considered the brining process, but it sounds like a wonderful technique to try. Also, your cocktail sauce recipe helped me put my own spiciness threshold in perspective: for "allergy season" I generally mix Vita™ horseradish and ketchup in a 1:1 ratio - clears the sinuses, but it sure is good! :)

Andrew / May 27, 2004 2:24 PM

Bruce, you could look into back issues of "Savoring Chicago," a bimonthly newsletter of Chicagoland food stores. I see in their back issues that they did two issues on butcher shops.

tara / May 27, 2004 3:50 PM

Bruce, try for a selection of Bohemian, and other, sausages. Grew up eating their Cream Sausage with scrambled eggs for breakfast. Mmmm.


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