Food & Drink Pretty in pink

Beady-eyed bottom-feeders, wild Gulf shrimp are back

Big fish eat small fish, and small fish eat shrimp eggs. And we Texans - even the newly transplanted - are more than happy to eat the shrimp that survive their infancy, blossoming into bottom-feeding teenagers in the shallows of estuaries and bays, and emigrating as beady-eyed adults into the Gulf, as they do each year. Texas' commercial shrimping season opened July 15 and, until it closes sometime next May, H-E-B, Central Market, and Whole Foods will stock wild brown and white shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico.

20-25 count white shrimp rest on a bed of course sea salt and thyme, ready to be roasted. The count refers to the number of shrimp that make up a pound. (Photos by Susan Pagani)

No matter how perky it looks in its ice bed, I like to give fresh shrimp a sniff and a pinch before purchasing. It should smell faintly of the sea and have firm flesh. One should be wary of shrimp with a pronounced fishy or ammonia odor, or black spots that might indicate melanosis, breakdown of the flesh. A yellow shell may be a sign that the shrimp has been dipped in sodium bisulfate, a bleaching agent used to remove the spots. But it's not for that reason alone that one should always buy shrimp with the shell on; as soon as it is removed, the shrimp starts to lose flavor and texture.

If you can't eat the shrimp the day you buy it, store it on ice, but don't let it soak in the runoff or it'll get soggy. Instead, wrap the shrimp in plastic and place it in a colander of ice, then stick the colander in a bowl in the refrigerator. It should stay fresh up to three days; after that, like houseguests, it starts to stink.

Free-range wild shrimp swim more than their farm-raised cousins, and so tend to have firmer, more tender meat. They may also have more flavor and harder shells because they feed on seaweed and other crustaceans. Brown shrimp is beloved for its hearty iodine flavor - the kelp they eat is rich in the element - while white shrimp tastes sweeter and milder and has a denser consistency.

20-25 count white shrimp rest on a bed of course sea salt and thyme, ready to be roasted. The count refers to the number of shrimp that make up a pound.

While it is easy to avoid undercooking shrimp - warm-water shrimp lose their translucence and turn pink as they cook - it is sometimes more difficult to avoid overcooking it, and there's nothing worse than chewy, mealy, or hard shrimp.

A nearly foolproof way to prepare shrimp is to roast it on coarse sea salt. Pour an inch of salt into an oven-safe dish - I use a tart pan - and let it pre-heat with the oven to 400 degrees. Once the salt is hot, arrange the shrimp, still in their shells, on top. Cover and bake for two minutes, turn the shrimp, and bake for two more. Like a flame spreader, the salt evenly conducts the heat, creating succulent, tender shrimp without imparting a salty flavor. A few sprigs of thyme or rosemary under the shrimp will make it all the more fragrant.

The simple dish below is a spicy hot and garlicky hybrid of scampi and bagna caldo, first served to me by a good friend in Portland, Oregon. I use aji teardrop peppers because that's what I have in my garden, but one could also use dried pepper flakes.

1/2 lb shrimp, peeled, deveined, and butterflied
1/4 c virgin olive oil or unsalted butter
3 large cloves of garlic
3-5 finely chopped aji teardrop peppers
3 tbl of white wine
4 or 5 leaves of fresh basil sliced
salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet, sauté the garlic and pepper over medium heat, just until soft and translucent. Add the shrimp and sauté until they are opaque, about two minutes on each side. Add the wine and cook until some of the alcohol has evaporated, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and add the basil.

The shrimp and sauce can be tossed with pasta, but at our house we prefer to sop up the brothy oil with crusty bread. On a recent evening, we dunked artichokes in the oil, the sweet leaves provided a wonderful foil for the heat of the pepper and the bright basil.

By Susan Pagani

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