MAYPORT, Fla. -- If there were such a thing as a national shrimp intervention, this may be a perfect moment for it.
We are a popcorn shrimp nation, enthralled by endless shrimp platters and bulging all-you-can-eat seafood buffets. We are lovers of overstuffed po’boys, steaming bowls of scampi and takeout containers dripping with kung pao.
Loving shrimp is not a bad thing, but increasingly cooks and environmentalists wonder if we love shrimp too much. Or if we are loving the right shrimp.
“Somewhere along the line, shrimp went from being that special thing to something you can gorge yourself on,” said Ken Peterson of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which since 1999 has distributed science-based cheat sheets to help consumers buy sustainable seafood through its Seafood Watch program.
Like so much of the food we eat, shrimp comes with all sorts of issues: Ensuring sustainability. Eating locally. Guarding against disease. And, at the top of the list for many cooks: What tastes best?
Almost 90 percent of the U.S. shrimp supply is imported, much of it from India, Thailand and Indonesia. But it has been a tough couple of years for imported shrimp.
Public health studies have been critical of the Food and Drug Administration’s testing program, and reports cite deplorable sanitation conditions at some processing plants. An incurable bacterial disease has devastated many shrimp farms, driving prices up. And even though the Seafood Watch lists certain farmed frozen shrimp from Thailand as an acceptable choice, the State Department in June released a report that highlighted forced labor used to catch the fish that feed some Thai shrimp farms.
Eating less imported shrimp and more shrimp from America’s coasts seems a logical choice. But a shift in culinary perspective — one that puts shrimp on par with food that is best in season and worth paying more for — is a change that most of us can only take slowly.
Shrimp’s popularity began to rise in the 1970s, along with foreign shrimp farms and inexpensive chain restaurants. Fancy shrimp cocktails at the “21” Club gave way to small, breaded shrimp at Red Lobster. Somewhere in the early 2000s, shrimp overtook canned tuna as the most popular seafood in America. People eat almost four pounds of it a year.
In Jacksonville, New Orleans and other shrimping capitals of the South, shrimp that has been boiled, fried or sauced with butter and Worcestershire is as common as bread. Shrimping is a legacy profession and the lifeblood of hundreds of coastal communities, whose shrimping families have endured hurricanes, environmental disasters and decades of foreign competition.
With foreign supplies in question and local food in vogue, many cooks and shrimpers here say wild American shrimp is the solution. But to assure itself a place at a shrimp-lover’s table, wild American shrimp will have to persuade cooks to embrace its more pronounced flavor, seasonality and higher price.
“It’s incredibly hard to get good shrimp if you are even 100 miles off the coast, but when you start tasting it, you really can’t turn back,” said Whitney Otawka, the chef at Cinco y Diez, Hugh Acheson’s Mexican reincarnation of his well-regarded 5 & 10 in the college town of Athens, Georgia.
Otawka sometimes makes the five-hour run to the shore herself, loading up a cooler with Georgia white shrimp from the Atlantic. It readily absorbs whatever sauce or seasoning it encounters. Otawka takes off the soft shells, leaves the heads and tails intact, and cooks them quickly in a hot, muscular chile sauce tempered with mezcal, butter and tomato.
But shrimp are wild creatures, and availability rises and falls on a complex mix of reproductive cycles, government regulations and seasons.
For Gerald Pack, 68, the owner of Safe Harbor Seafood Market and Restaurant near the Florida-Georgia border, the best shrimp come in November and December, after they have matured and moved to the deep water south of Mayport.
“They get a wild taste to them,” he said. “The ones that come out of rivers early in life are not as firm.”
But he does not expect people who have not grown up on good shrimp to understand. “People in Idaho wouldn’t know the difference between imported shrimp and our shrimp,” he said.
U.S. shrimp is not without its problems. It can be expensive and hard to find. What a local on the north Florida coast might pick up for less than $9 a pound will cost $18.50 at the Lobster Place in New York’s Chelsea Market. Still, Gulf shrimp is the best seller, said Brendan Hayes, an executive with the company.
At the fish counter or supermarket, shoppers should not turn away from frozen shrimp. But be selective. Make sure the bag says “IQF,” which stand for individually quick frozen. The label will note whether the shrimp is farmed or wild, and where it came from. Buy shrimp in the shell. It protects the product, and peeled shrimp has often been treated with chemical preservatives.
Wild shrimp is attractive to a new generation of cooks. Kristen Baughman, 24, who has just moved from North Carolina to New York, is a social media manager who specializes in food. She grew up in South Carolina, and her family’s send-off party featured a Frogmore stew based on her dad’s recipe, the key to which is timing when each ingredient goes into the boiling, seasoned water.
“For my generation, we like to delve into the details of our food, and the whole wild-caught shrimp thing is just so much better,” she said.
And that is not a hard sell to a demographic group that increasingly wants to know more about the provenance, economics and social effect of what they eat.
“Once you really get into shrimping,” she said, “you are going to think maybe I shouldn’t be buying disgusting popcorn shrimp from a fast-food place.”
Still, most wild American shrimp from the Eastern Seaboard, the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf and the waters around Alaska get good marks from seafood monitoring programs, some of which also endorse certain kinds of farmed shrimp, including the small but growing domestic operations.
“If you are going to eat wild shrimp, you have to keep in mind what the ramifications are,” said Paul Greenberg, who recently published “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood.”
The bigger question, he says, is whether 4 pounds of shrimp per capita a year is too much.
“If we could make it one of many things we ate from the sea, then we could live off our own shrimp and eat the bycatch,” he said. “It should be viewed as this precious local product, not a commodity product.”
Look for “IQF” on labels. Individually quick-frozen shrimp are frozen immediately upon catch, retaining quality.
Farmed or wild? The packaging will tell you. Do your research into foreign shrimp-farming sustainability.
Buy shell-on shrimp. The shell protects the product, and peeled shrimp are often treated with chemical preservatives.
Spiced Salt-Baked Shrimp
3 pounds rock salt
1/4 cup whole green cardamom pods
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
4 bay leaves
3 star anise
1 lemon, cut into four wedges
10 sprigs of thyme
2 jalapeño peppers, cut into thick slices
1 head of garlic, outer skin removed and smashed into several pieces
2 pounds medium or large shrimp, about 20 to 25 pieces, with shells and tails on
Cocktail sauce, tartar sauce or melted butter, for serving
Heat oven to 475 degrees. In a bowl, add salt, cardamom, peppercorns, cinnamon, bay leaves, anise, two lemon wedges, the thyme, the jalapeños and the garlic and mix well. In a large shallow baking dish, add half the salt mixture. Place in oven for 10 to 12 minutes. Carefully remove pan from oven and set shrimp in a single layer on salt and then cover with remaining, cool salt mixture. Return to oven. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes more, or until shrimp are just cooked through. Serve shrimp in the salt, or move to a platter. Garnish with remaining lemon. Serve with cocktail or tartar sauce or melted butter. Makes 4 servings.
Source: Adapted from Adam Evans, The Optimist, Atlanta.
Pan-Roasted Shrimp With Mezcal, Tomatoes and Arbol Chiles
2 large Roma tomatoes
3 fresh arbol chiles
1 cup clam juice
2 tablespoons clarified butter, or ghee
7 dried arbol chiles
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced white onion
1 tablespoon minced poblano chile
1 pound extra-large shrimp, or about 16, with the tail and the head left on but the body peeled
2 ounces mezcal
1 tablespoon lime juice, plus lime wedges for serving
1 tablespoon minced cilantro
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt, depending on salinity of shrimp
On a hot grill or grill pan, roast tomatoes until the skins are charred and soft. On the same grill, toast fresh chiles for a few seconds to soften. Transfer tomatoes and chiles to a blender and purée with clam juice. Strain and reserve.
Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high and add clarified butter. When it’s hot, add the dried arbol chiles. Fry lightly until they just begin to darken, which could take less than a minute. Add garlic, onion and poblano and sauté for about 1 minute. Add shrimp and cook for about 20 seconds. Add mezcal (if using a gas range, remove pan from the flame as you add the alcohol). Cook for about 30 seconds and add reserved tomato broth.
Simmer for another minute and add lime juice, cilantro and butter. Reduce for 30 more seconds, remove from heat and add 1/2 teaspoon salt. Check for seasoning. Add more salt if needed. Serve shrimp and sauce with lime wedges. Makes 2 servings as main dish, 4 as an appetizer.
Source: Adapted from Whitney Otawka, Cinco y Diez, Athens, Georgia.
Southern Shrimp Scampi
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 pound large shrimp, preferably wild American shrimp (16/20 or 21/25 count), peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup white wine
6 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
In a bowl, toss garlic, salt and pepper with the shrimp, which may be refrigerated, well covered, for several hours at this point. When ready to cook, heat oil in a large sauté pan over high heat until it shimmers, then add shrimp and move shrimp around in the pan for about 2 minutes, or until the color just begins to turn from translucent. Remove shrimp, reduce heat to medium-high and add wine, scraping up any bits on the bottom of the pan. Cook for a couple of minutes to reduce, then add butter and swirl the pan to melt it.
Put shrimp back into pan, stir about a minute to finishing cooking and add lemon juice. Remove to serving dish, sprinkle with parsley and red pepper flakes, adding more pepper if desired. Serve over rice or pasta or as is. Makes 4 servings.