Tuesday, 18 June 2024

Foodie Freak: Shrimp

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For me, purchasing shrimp is a moral dilemma. I have to have conversations with a pantheon of deities in order to just put a package of shrimp in my shopping cart.


Why would something as simple and tummy-rubbing as shrimp do this to my already fragile psyche? Because the methods used to get it to my grocer’s seafood case are environmentally detrimental.


Both wild-caught shrimp and farm-raised pose problems that just make me squirm. When I was younger I was Mr. Environmentalist. My school reports were always about natural power sources (that was before it was called “alternative energy” or “green energy”). As a teen, I wrote letters to the leaders of foreign governments about environmental issues and my concerns about their countries’ practices. There is even a law in Minnesota (my homeland) dealing with the proper disposal of toxic chemicals that I was the instigator for and major force behind.


Now I’ll admit in recent years my stance has softened and I’m not walking around with petitions to get free dental care for the whales anymore, but I still consider environmental factors when I go to the grocery store. Deciding what kind of shrimp to buy brings these issues to the front of my mind.


Let’s start with wild-caught shrimp, which has been the bane of environmentalists for a long time. I was once an activist against shrimp trawlers. Shrimp caught by trawl is the worst environmental disaster since the seven plagues. A giant net is dragged behind the boat scooping up everything in its path. Law requires a special escape hatch to allow turtles to escape, but everything else goes in.


When full, the net is pulled in and dumped onto the deck of the boat. The crew then picks through all of the creatures and removes the shrimp individually. Once all the shrimp are pulled out the remaining “bycatch” is dumped back into the ocean, most of it now dead or near death. Seagulls follow these boats because they know that eventually a smorgasbord of dead fish will be served from the back of it.


Shrimp trawlers catch approximately 2 percent of the world’s shrimp but produce one-third of the world’s bycatch. The ratio of sea life caught in the nets that isn’t shrimp but that will inevitably die on the deck of the boat ranges between 5 to 20 pounds of bycatch for every 1 pound of shrimp caught. The thought of up to 20 pounds of sea life dying so I can have 1 pound of shrimp is very distressful to me.


The fact that wild shrimp have to fight for survival makes them have thicker shells (thicker shells mean more flavor), firmer flesh and more complex flavor. There is even a movement starting promoting that wild shrimp be sold with identifiers, like American Viticultural Areas or special regions, similar to what oyster farms did with marketing “Blue Points” and “Hog Island.”


While the flavor of wild shrimp is usually better than farmed shrimp, the quality can vary a great deal. After all, the shrimp has had no standards placed on it until it hits the processor. So now I have to consider ... wild shrimp will most likely (though not definitely) taste better than farmed, but what about all of that wasted sea life?


Farm-raised shrimp was the savior of the ocean when it was first started but the profit caused a problem. It was TOO profitable. Everyone wanted in and shrimp farms sprang up all over. Farming solves the issue of the massive amounts of dead bycatch, but miles and miles of coastal mangrove forests have been cleared to make the shrimp farms. Mangrove forests create intertidal habitats where the trees grow in a great tangle of roots and branches, giving prime breeding and nursery habitat for countless aquatic species. The removal of these forests now leaves these small creatures no place to hide from predators.


The shrimp farms feed the shrimp fish meal until they reach a harvestable size, at about four and a half months. Farm-raised shrimp is not fed for a week prior to harvest, which not only saves money for the farmer but cleans out the digestive tract (sand vein) of the shrimp so they don’t need to be de-veined.


The flavor of farmed shrimp isn’t generally quite as good as wild-caught, but the consistent quality is assured. It is so reliable that a plate full of farm-raised shrimp look like they were cloned. Yet the loss of the intertidal habitat that shrimp farming has caused may result in grave damage to the species that used to breed in them. Though the effects may not be felt for another decade or more, by then it may be too late to repair the damage.


I get a sad chuckle at the idea that the very bycatch that shrimp trawlers throw out as waste into the ocean to rot could be kept and turned into fish meal that the shrimp farmers could then use. I guess it’ll be a while before we live in that world of cooperation. All these issues make me want to become a vegetarian, but when you look into the eyes of a young potato and it just tugs at your heart ...


Shrimp is a lot like fowl. Just like chicken, turkey, guinea hens and hummingbirds all taste differently, shrimp varieties taste different from each other. Where the shrimp lived and what it ate greatly affects the taste. All shrimp are high in calcium, iodine, and protein. The cholesterol levels in shrimp actually improve the levels of LDL to HDL and lowers triglycerides, so in the end shrimp is great food for dieting. But it should be mentioned here that the only seafood species higher in cholesterol than shrimp are squid and caviar. A typical meal of 10 medium/large sized shrimp gives you about half of the American Heart Association’s recommended daily amount.


Personally I believe one of the reasons that shrimp is so popular in American cuisine is because the average person doesn’t know what a poorly cooked shrimp looks or tastes like. When I look at grocery store pre-cooked shrimp I cringe because most of it looks overcooked already. You can tell if shrimp is overcooked by looking at it. Perfectly cooked shrimp will make a “C” or half moon shape. If the shrimp makes a full-circled “O”, or even a full curl like the number nine, that shrimp is overcooked, and though it will still taste like shrimp it will be overly chewy. If you want truly superior tasting shrimp you need to buy it raw with the shell on, cook it in the shell and peel it yourself.


Cooking the shrimp with the shell on will give you more shrimp flavor, but if you want to flavor your shrimp with a traditional Louisiana shrimp boil or Old Bay seasoning you will want to peel the shrimp first.


So with all of this information about shrimp, I bet you’re wondering: when I do buy shrimp, what kind do I purchase? Most of the time I get farm raised tiger shrimp, but once in a while one of the deities in my head get me to purchase wild shrimp. Gotta go with what they recommend.


This recipe will cook a dozen shrimp perfectly.


1 pound (about 25) medium/large shrimp


Fill your largest (2 quarts) pot about 2/3 full with water and add a generous amount of salt, old bay or whatever seasoning you like. Cover, heat to a furious boil, and then add shrimp, replace the cover and immediately turn off the heat. Let sit for 15 to 20 minutes until shrimp is done. (If you don’t know what size your pot is or what size the shrimp is just figure two-thirds water to one-third shrimp; the cooking process for any size shrimp or pot will stay the same.)


Drain the water. You can serve the shrimp immediately hot with melted butter, but if you’re cooking the shrimp ahead you’ll want to throw the shrimp in an ice water bath to chill them down and stop the cooking process.


I’m not a big fan of cocktail sauce since anything you eat with it tastes like cocktail sauce and nothing else, but my daughter loves it so I make it. One day I left her at home with a bunch of shrimp and no cocktail sauce and she called me to get instructions on how to make it!


The following recipe is what I came up with for her to make herself if it ever happens again. It’s very simple, so feel free to add or subtract anything you like (for example, herbs could do some wonders). This recipe is enough for half a pound to a pound of shrimp, depending on how heavy a dipper you are.


Cocktail sauce


2 tablespoons ketchup

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon prepared horseradish sauce

1 or 2 shots of hot sauce to taste


Mix, chill, serve.


Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.


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