the official website for the writings of ralph robert moore
Deep Shrimp is Copyright © 1998 by Ralph Robert Moore. All Rights Reserved.
Return to friends before food
friends before food
I grew up next to an ocean.
Specifically, the death-dark, black and emerald waters of the Atlantic Ocean. So many sailors drowned in it over the centuries of wood on waves each crest smashing and sliding up to sand castles and discarded white-paper hot dog holders must hold within its popping bubbles a thousand soggy exhalations.
My maternal grandparents had Long Island Sound in their backyard, past a mowed green lawn and grey-painted dock, with a spit of beige sand on the left of the property. At low tide the sea would recede way past the thin crescent beach to bare the absolute black of sea bottom, opened tops of mussel shells sticking up out of the mud like so many fossilized throats stopped in mid song. At low tide, as a kid, the ocean receding in our bay to a river, I'd venture out over the squishy black mud, barefoot in baggy swimming trunks, hurling a rock twice the size of my gripping hand straight down. That was how you hunted live clams. Wherever the meteor impact of the rock produced a clear upwards curl of water, you got down on your skinny knees and dug for the clam that had spritzed. In those days, before red tide, you could actually bring back to a bright kitchen and eat what you found in the mud off the Atlantic.
Another activity in the fifties, that decade awash in smoking, DDT, marbled beef and wandering kids, but which nonetheless left the world far less polluted and dangerous than our own time of salads, prostate examinations and step exercises, was killey catching.
Killeys are small fish about the size of sardines. They were meant as bait fish, though I suspect they were caught more for the joy of netting a heavy quantity of activity than they were for any practical use. You'd employ a rather peculiar contraption: a large square of window screen reinforced on each side with a thin length of wood, cord from each corner slanting upwards and inwards towards a knot in a stick that was lowered, fish pole style, into the water. In the center of the screen would be a couple of rocks to sink the mesh, plus hunks of wonder bread encased in wrapped-around window screen.
You'd leave the screen submerged for at least half an hour, a long time for a kid, with nothing but the opposite shore to stare at, then haul it up out of the ocean. In the downward-bowed center of the square screen you'd raise up a hundred or so killeys, their small tails flipping the sea water away, plus, startlingly, occasionally, the long, snakish menace of an eel whipping around the sagging bottom of the screen, gliding darkly over the startled silver of the killeys.
Whenever we lifted an eel out of mid-swim, my grandfather would snatch it by its finned tail, haul its wriggle up out of the net, and swing it over his head in a swift downward arc ending with the small dark head bouncing off a land-based rock. Curved fishing hooks popped up into its tough tail, its length would be hung upside down and the black skin yanked down the muscular curls, baring the pearly grey of meat, the ribbony sheath snapped down off the spasms of its head.
"It was a brave man who ate the first oyster". Well, that is true. I was fortunate enough to grow up around the sea, so my mouth accepted what my mind might otherwise, elsewhere, surrounded by the geometries of farmland, reject. To me, there is no more elegant a meal than a full fish, head and tail intact, one cooked eye staring, spread across a white china dinner plate.
Tonight, we deal with shrimp.
To make deep-fried shrimp, you need anywhere from one to two pounds of shrimp for two people, depending on how big and hungry the two people are.
"One pound" or "two pounds" means shrimp with the shell and tail still on, but the head unfortunately unavailable.
Something as good as shrimp needs to be served as simply as possible, so there are very few ingredients to this recipe.
You will need:
NOTE: The main ingredient in this dish is shrimp. That means your shrimp has to be of the highest quality possible. Most supermarkets sell shrimp with nitrates or nitrites added to increase shelf life. As a result, most shrimp you buy from supermarket chains has an unnatural wet chalk color and horrible chemical smell. In essence, supermarkets are selling you embalmed shrimp. Ask to smell the shrimp they're offering at $10.00 or more a pound, and if it has any chemical stink at all, tell them you won't buy from them unless they get fresh, untreated shrimp. Do you have to be this assertive? Of course not. But, to paraphrase Churchill, people get the food they deserve.
A good source for fresh, untreated shrimp in America is the Whole Foods chain, slowly spreading outwards from Texas. If there isn't a Whole Foods in your area yet, try purchasing raw shrimp from a local Oriental restaurant. They may even sell it to you at a reduced rate. The shrimp you buy should have a neutral or slightly sweet smell, with a pearly, rather than white, color. When you hunt for shrimp, as indeed when you search for any food, your criteria should be, is this-- this in front of me below a price tag, rather than this as a still life cookbook illustration-- something I'd like to eat?
Shrimp is sold in America by "the count". The count tells you how many shrimp there are in a pound, and therefore how large the individual shrimp are. If you buy 36-count shrimp, meaning a pound of shrimp comprised of approximately 36 individual shrimp, each one is obviously going to be quite small. If you buy 12-count shrimp, you'll be given a dozen large shrimp. For this recipe, the best size seems to be a 16 to 20 count.
Once you have fresh, untreated shrimp, the next step is to peel off all the shells, starting at their leggy undersides, using your thumbs. I also remove the tails, because it's easier to eat shrimp that way.
Once your shrimp are deshelled, it's time to devein. A shrimp has two veins: the sand vein running along the hump of its back, the more important of the two veins to remove, and the blood vein running up under its inward crescent.
Place each shrimp on a cutting board hump side up, and at its thickest end gently push the tip of a sharp knife down into the meat until it exposes the thick black thread of the sand vein. Draw a groove that same depth down the length of the hump. Hold the opened shrimp under the faucet, rinsing out sideways the dark, ropy thread.
Invert the shrimp on the cutting board, and trace the knife's tip down through the blood vein, then lift that out and rinse it away.
You should now have a shrimp that's slit along its length both over and underneath its hump.
If you prefer butterflying your shrimp (in other words, slicing them almost in half so each still-connected half can be spread apart, creating a flat disk of shrimp), make the sand vein incision deeper, but not so deep as to reach the blood vein (since you'll still be slicing through from the other side to slick the sand vein out).
Repeat this deveining process on the rest of the shrimp.
Make the two sauces.
For the cocktail sauce, combine equal parts of ketchup and horseradish sauce in a small bowl, stirring them together with a tablespoon. Taste. If the sauce is too mild for you, add more horseradish sauce. If the sauce is too hot, add more ketchup. The combined ketchup and horseradish should equal one to two cups for two people, depending upon how much you like it.
For the mustard sauce, place three or four tablespoons of dry mustard in a ramekin or very small bowl. Add driblets of water until you have a loose paste. Stir thoroughly (a chop stick works well here, or the inverted tip of a spoon's handle).
Assuming you're serving two, take out two small bowls, soup- or salad-sized, and ladle the red cocktail sauce into the bottom of each bowl. Near a curved edge of each bowl spoon-place half the mustard paste, so that the mustard sits atop the cocktail sauce like the Great Spot sits atop the whorled surface of Jupiter.
Heat six inches of oil (peanut or vegetable) in a deep fat fryer or wok. Joke around with the other person until the temperature of the oil reaches 350 degrees.
Create the coating according to the instructions on the package of tempura mix you bought.
Dredge each shrimp through the wet, clumpy tempura mix, hold it over the bowl containing the mix to let the excess drip thickly off, then let the coated shrimp slip down in the hot pool of oil. You can probably do six shrimp at a time.
As the coating of each shrimp turns ridged and golden, lift it out of the noisy oil and transfer it to a plate covered with a doubled layer of paper towels (to absorb the oozing drops of hot oil).
Once all the shrimp are encased in a brittle shell of batter, float a dozen at a time on the pool of darkening oil, briefly, to reheat them.
Pile the shrimp on a large plate, placing the bowl of sauces amid their hard curves.
Eat them laying in bed, dipping each shrimp pre-bite into the red or yellow sauce, or both. The mustard sauce is quite hot, the type of heat you feel in your nostrils, so be dainty with that one.
background on the recipe
Shrimp has always signified good times.
Because it's a delicious food in and of itself, unadorned, there really aren't that many great shrimp recipes (much as there only a handful of great lobster recipes).
The best way to eat shrimp, of course, is the Shrimp Cocktail, where the shrimp are served chilled and naked, with no accompaniment other than cocktail sauce.
In that same spirit, Deep Shrimp keeps the presentation as simple as possible, adding only batter, serving the shrimp hot rather than cold, and introducing an additional dipping sauce.