“Hand-To-Mouth Meals” is a special series of blog posts where I will be engaged in all the processes (harvest, handling, transport, menu development, and meal preparation) that transform an ingredient into food. For the first in this series, I’ve chosen America’s favorite seafood, shrimp, which is harvested right here off the coast of Charleston, SC.
Thanks so much to FoodBuzz for choosing this inaugural “Hand-To-Mouth Meal” to be part of their 24 Meals, 24 Hours, 24 Blog Posts project.
Imagine for a moment what a patch of water with a hundred or so giant sharks caught up in a massive feeding frenzy would look like. That’s what I was seeing up ahead of us as we plied through the cool, blue, and deceptively serene waters of the Folly River.
I tried not to sound as nervous as I felt. “Fred,” I said, pointing to the approaching, blood-chilling turbulence, “What the hell am I looking at?”
“That? That’s a sandbar. Tide’s coming in pretty good. It’s probably going to be kinda lumpy out there.”
Lumpy. Oh joy.
Just past the sandbar, the remnants of a long-neglected dock jutted out into the river. On it, dozens of pelicans watched silently as we passed. I may have been imagining things, but it seemed like a couple of them were looking at me and shaking their heads sadly:
Pelican One: “What do you think, Stan? Think he’ll make it through?”
Pelican Two: “I don’t know, Bert, I just don’t know.”
Moments later, big swells started rising, seemingly coming from every direction and bouncing Fred’s small but sturdy boat, The Catherine, up and down and side to side and occasionally slamming it down with a filling-loosening crash. I was trying to look casual while keeping a deathgrip on the rail, and I wondered, with a sense of mild horror, if this was what my whole day was going to be like.
Fred must have noticed my white knuckles. “Have I ever taken you through the Washing Machine before?”
The Washing Machine? Oh yeah, that sounded about right.
“It’s not too big,” Fred said, “We should be out of it another fifteen, twenty minutes.”
Oh good, I thought. It’s always nice to have something to live for.
Fred Dockery is the triple-threat of local commercial fishermen. He’s a crabber mainly, but he shrimps during the season and hold an oyster license, too. He also works with the SC Department of Natural Resources doing conservation research on such things as turtle excluder design for nets and traps.
In the research I’m doing for my book, Hugging The Coast, Fred’s wealth of knowledge related to seafood and the commercial fishing industry has been absolutely invaluable. He’s also a heck of a good guy, a patient teacher, and in all the times we’ve been out together on his boat, he’s never chided me too badly about my little secret: I have a terrible motion sickness problem and it takes every medication known to science to keep me from sharing my breakfast with the pelicans.
In spite of that inconvenient truth, I truly enjoy being out on the water. But rivers and creeks and inlets are more my speed. Today, though, we were heading out into the big, bad Atlantic Ocean to net some shrimp for the first Hand-To-Mouth meal.
275 years later, we passed through the Washing Machine and out into the ocean which, my stomach told me, was only marginally less ‘lumpy’ than the Washing Machine. Fred throttled back, and he and Rich Brown (his friend and fellow fisherman) went into game mode, expertly feeding the net off the stern, along with the ‘tickler chain’ (which makes the shrimp jump up off the bottom), and the ‘doors’, the large wooden slabs that angle out from the front of the net to keep the wide horizontal mouth of the net open and near the bottom as it’s dragged through the water.
Here in South Carolina, shrimping season runs from about mid-May to December and sometimes beyond, depending on how warm the water stays. Most shrimping is done from large trawlers that have dual nets lowered on enormous booms and are dragged for four or five hours at a time through likely areas. To determine if they’re in a good location, the large boats use ‘try nets’, smaller versions that are pulled up every hour or so to see what’s going on down below. If the try net comes up full of shrimp, that means the big nets are filling up, too.
Fred’s operation is on a different scale. “That’s our try net right there,” he said pointing to one of the seagulls following the boat as it whirled down to scoop up a snack in the boat’s wake, “If they’re picking up shrimp, we’re in the right spot.”
With the net in the water, it was just a matter of spending an hour or so traveling back and forth over a section of water in parallel rows, like a farmer driving a harvester over a field. Only a lot wetter.
Since there was some time to kill, Fred and Rich broke out a late breakfast. The very idea of eating was giving me shivers, but I was doing a good job of not turning green until Fred held out a ziplock bag containing gnarled, brownish strips.
“Anyone like to try some homemade fish jerky?”
My knees, already weakened from trying to keep from falling overboard, turned gooey and I broke out in that tell-tale icy sweat.
“Ummm, Maybe later. I, uh, I think I’m just gonna sit down for a while…”
I positioned myself carefully on the narrow framework of the forward winch and put my head down on a bouncing steel crossbeam and promptly passed out. No, wait…I mean fell asleep. Yeah, I fell asleep. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I awoke to the sound of the engine slowing. It was time to ‘haul back’ the net and see what we had. After my “nap” I was feeling a lot steadier and somewhat less violently nauseous. Still, I doubted I’d be dipping into the fish jerky anytime soon.
As the net was rising, the seagulls went into full-tilt begging mode. ‘Want!’ they implored, hovering just over the glistening lines, ‘Want! Want!’ They weren’t exactly pitiful, sad-eyed dogs, but they’d be rewarded soon enough anyway.
A plain old net dragged through the water would come up with any number of different creatures both large and small, but shrimping nets are very carefully designed to draw in the small and exclude the large. Which is why, when the nets are emptied onto the deck, there are no large fish or turtles, but there are plenty of little things in with the shrimp. This ‘bycatch’, which included baitfish, small crabs, and icky round creatures called jellyballs, is sorted out from the shrimp and tossed overboard. The quick ones swim away; the seagulls take the hindmost. It’s a circle of life thing.
It wasn’t a big haul, only a few dozen pounds, but the shrimp themselves were big and beautiful. We headed back, having done a good morning’s work and, one of us at least, having not puked on anyone’s shoes.
And that, by my standards, is one of the defining characteristics a good day.
To give you a taste of what commercial small scale shrimping is like, here’s a video featuring highlights from my day shrimping off Kiawah Island with the ever-patient Fred Dockery and Rich Brown which you can see below or here.
Heading home with my shrimp, I couldn’t figure out why the shock absorbers in my old pickup seemed so much better, why the road itself seemed like glass. Then it dawned on me: the road wasn’t bouncing up and down and side to side. The planet may be spinning at 10,000+ miles an hour and hurtling through space at blinding speed, but for all that it’s still a pretty smooth ride.
Before I came to the Carolina Lowcountry, I’d eaten plenty of shrimp. Or so I’d thought.
It wasn’t until I tasted the shrimp harvested right here in these temperate waters that I’d realized what I’d been missing. These aren’t your standard imported farm-raised shrimp; South Carolina shrimp have real flavor, and a substantial texture that’s satisfying as good steak. They taste like shrimp ought to taste, and maybe did before we became inundated and then placated by cheap, watery imports. In my opinion, these beautiful shrimp could be the official mascot of the locavore movement.
Like any high-quality local ingredient, capturing their flavor means using or processing them right away. Shrimp are iced down on the boats and are kept cold all through the cleaning, grading, and other processes that take place before they’re sold. Most shrimp are sold head-off, but the closer you get to the source, the more likely it is that you’ll have to head the shrimp yourself. It’s not a particularly neat process, but it’s not at all difficult (although years ago I tried to head shrimp without any idea of how it was properly done and turned it into a legendary fiasco.
A few of things to remember about head-on shrimp:
- You’ll find them at surprisingly low prices, but that’s because 35-40% of the weight of the shrimp is in the head. To be on the safe side, buy 40% more than you need.
- On the plus side, if you buy fresh head-on shrimp, you’ll find that they aren’t waterlogged and will give you more real ‘meat’ for your money.
- Heading shrimp can be a messy business until you get the hang of it. You might want to wear vinyl gloves if it’s your first time.
Most of us have been stuck at one time or another by the sharp, pointy bit (the telson) at the tail-end of the shrimp. Head-on shrimp have another pointy bit at the front (the rostrum) which is easy to see and thus avoid. Just be careful not to grab a handful of them the way you would head-off shrimp – or you’ll learn a valuable lesson!
Unlike head-off shrimp, you’ll have to deal with long antennae, googly eyes, and lots of legs. Expect that it will take some getting used to, start with small amounts (not ten pounds, like I did!), and take a break if it gets to be too much.
Just remember: when we make the (sometimes difficult) effort to process our foodstuffs from their most elemental form, it shows true respect to the source of our nourishment.
Here’s a video I put together that shows you how to easily process head-on shrimp, as well as quickly devein them, which you can see below or here.
After heading my shrimp, I sorted them by approximate size: the biggest ones for the dishes with just a few, very visible shrimp; medium ones for dishes where they would be in a bunch together; and the smaller ones for the dishes that would use them as an ingredient.
I’d had some general ideas in mind for what I wanted to cook, but during the sorting I decided to try and open up over the next few days and be guided by instinct in my menu planning. I wanted to find the best expression for these little marvels, the best way to express their flavor and texture, and along the way find some new flavor combinations that my guests (some friends from the local fishing community who’ve eaten these amazing shrimp since childhood), would find novel.
I wanted to open the meal with a dish that would convey the purity and exquisite freshness of a perfectly boiled, lightly chilled shrimp. I also wanted this dish to be an elegant color story that would bring together flavorful ingredients that harmonized visually with the color of the shrimp.
I remembered Rose Quartz Radishes, which was an idea that I’d developed and liked very much, but never got around to making again.
They were the perfect choice, since they combine an interesting flavor with a unique shape and color.
The technique is simple: start with red radishes (the elongated French type work very well), pare off the sides into a random polygon, ’sharpen’ the ends in the same manner, then simmer the radishes and all the parings in just enough lightly salted water to cover.
When just tender, turn off the heat and let them cool for a while in the liquid. They will take up the color during this cooling period, so be patient. Remove and chill.
The Blueberry-Tarragon Butter brings together the bright mint notes of a familiar tarragon butter with the warm sweetness of dried blueberry. I layered it for contrast and also to create an opportunity for each guest to experiment with the flavors.
I’ve always had a special love for mojo, the marinade that infuses many of my favorite Cuban dishes with garlicky goodness. On a recent trip to the store, I found a chipotle mojo next to the regular and didn’t hesitate in grabbing one. This was the first time I’ve had occasion to use it and it is exciting stuff.
I added it to coconut milk and let the shrimp marinate for longer than usual to allow the flavors to penetrate.
I grilled them quickly over hot coals to crust them and then dredged the skewers in crushed, roasted sesame seeds.
The result? An addictive combination of flavor and crunch that may well enter the pantheon of shrimpy greatness.
The relish, a combination of tangerine, Vidalia onion, pomegranate, and lemongrass was a sweet and refreshing companion for the spicy skewers.
This seafood sausage was a complete, spur-of-the-moment creation. I had planned on five courses, but I had a fennel bulb on hand, and the thought of shrimp paired with fennel braised in a little brandy just seemed right.
I added some soft dried apricot to unite the flavors, and parsley and a little lemon zest for brightness. After poaching,
I rolled it in sweet Hungarian paprika and served it warm with a jalapeno-infused cilantro tartar that had a touch of sweetness from the pomegranate.
Altogether, the dish had a subtle complexity that was pleasantly satisfying.
The first time I had Spanish-style garlic shrimp was, oddly, in the Ironbound section of Newark, NJ. But the Ironbound is home to many excellent restaurants that serve some of the finest Spanish and Portugese food on this side of the Atlantic. I fell head over heels in love with garlic shrimp, and was never able to truly improve on the classic recipe provided by Penelope Casas in her outstanding book The Foods and Wines of Spain – until now.
The small changes in technique and the addition of a little fine Spanish brandy, a few capers, and a pinch of smoked paprika really send this dish soaring into the heavens on crusty bread wings.
This was my ‘pasta’ course – with a twist. The shrimp and the scallop medallions were dredged in a finely-milled mix of dried wild mushrooms and seared in brown butter and a little olive oil.
The spaghetti squash ‘pasta’ was dressed with a fragrant porcini oil and the plate flecked with shavings of rich Grana Padano cheese. It was a very graceful Italian dish with real depth of flavor.
I told my guests that the next course would be a tart, allowing them to assume that dessert was coming. Not so fast, though. I had one more shrimp dish up my sleeve!
This Shrimp and Grits Tart is a remix of the classic Lowcountry dish, although there are so many different recipes for Shrimp and Grits that I really think it’s more of an idea or a concept than a particular dish.
In any case, no matter what else it includes, if a recipe’s got shrimp and it’s got grits, well then, you’re off to a good start.
Grits are polenta by another name, and are just as fancy, even if the name isn’t. When just made, they’re creamy and smooth, but leave them alone for a while and they ’set up’ into a solid mass that presents new opportunities, such as this crust.
Inside is a combination of peppers, onions, bacon, chives, cheese, and lots of tasty shrimp. A slice of this for breakfast, lunch, dinner (or even for ‘dessert’) is Heaven on a June-or-any-other day.
You can read the recipe for the Coastal Carolina Shrimp and Grits Tart here.
For the actual dessert course, I opted for a variety of fruits to refresh and revitalize after what was a large but thoroughly satisfying meal. My guests, some of the hardest working and most dedicated people I’ve ever known, enjoyed the opportunity to sit together and drink wine and talk while being surprised, amused, and pleased by what was coming out of the kitchen, and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to please and surprise them.
It would be hard to say what their favorite dish was, because they did fair justice to everything I brought out. There was a moment, however, just after we’d broken bread together over bowls of garlic shrimp, where we all just sat back in the afterglow and kind of looked around to just gather in the real camaraderie of the event.
My friend Scott summed it up for all of us. “This is great,” he said, stretching, “We should do this again.”
Sounds good to me.
Please join us tomorrow to read our newest feature on HuggingtheCoast.Com.
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