Cleanin’ Out My Cabinets: Head-On Shrimp

This will serve as a nice light post in between relatively large posts.  This was ready to be posted last Friday but I forgot until today.  I’m just happy to be getting some posts out during the holiday season since I’ve averaged about one post a December since I started this thing.  I believe in family time and unplugging the computer during the holidays which is why I like to post minimally.

YeeeeeeeeeeeOK, Pete!!!  I open more text messages than presents on Christmas morning.  I love technology and I’m just lazy about posting.

First, lets clarify that this post has nothing to do with the most infuriating, repetitive, and, as a result, memorable ad from the past five years:

Instead, I am trying to make clear the difference between a standard grocery store shrimp and what I cooked for this post: fresh shrimp, caught in the Gulf of Mexico, never frozen, and with the head left on.

Yeah, sooooo not my picture. Forgot to take some initial shots before cooking as usual

Most shrimp you get in the grocery store or even a fish market is previously frozen and partially cleaned (head removed and deveined) before you buy it.  Even worse is when it’s all of those things then cooked and refrozen.  I love using frozen raw shrimp as an ingredient, but the true flavor of shrimp barely exists with the head and shell taken away.  It’s like the difference between a chicken breast and a bone-in chicken thigh; both can be delicious, but only one really tastes like chicken.

I discovered the fresh head-on shrimp at the fish market on my last visit to Naples and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it again.  This time around as part of a progressive (read spaced out, random, small plates) dinner on our last night in Naples for Thanksgiving.  On the menu: stone crab claws, a pseudo Thai-style shrimp, and fish tacos with our haul from a fishing trip the day before.  I’ve covered most of these items previously, so let’s skip right to the shrimp prep.

I started with 7-8 cloves of garlic, half a red onion, a few baby carrots, a rib of celery, and some leftover ham in the mini-prep.

Mmmmm, ham mirepoix.  There needs to be a term for mirepoix or holy trinity + salty pork.  It's the base for almost anything delicious

Mmmmm, ham mirepoix.  There needs to be a term for mirepoix + garlic and salty pork.  It’s the base for almost anything delicious.  Moving forward with this blog I think I will be referring to it as “mirepete”.  So, um, write that down or something

With a few spins in each direction, the ingredients were coarsely chopped and a relatively uniform size.  I heated up a couple tablespoons of olive oil and a couple tablespoons of chili oil in a pot before dumping the contents of the mini prep in (the mirepete).  After a few minutes, the garlic and the sugar in the ham started to brown and I seasoned with a little curry powder, salt, and pepper.

Pork fat makes everything taste better, which is going to be an overwhelming and obnoxious;y persistent aspect of next week's post

Pork fat makes everything taste better, which is going to be an overwhelming and obnoxiously persistent aspect of the holiday dinner mega-post I got in queue

At this point I added a dark beer (it was actually an Odouls, still working through the backlog from Kristi’s pregnancy a year and a half later) and let it boil down for 5-10 minutes.  Once it had reduced by about half, I added a can of coconut milk and let it heat to a low simmer.

I can usually maintain this level of a simmer for 3-4 seconds, especially on an electric range, before it either goes back to cold or a raging boil.  Still haven't figured out the stovetop, will get the hang of it within 20-30 years

I can usually maintain this level of a simmer for 3-4 seconds, especially on an electric range, before it either goes back to cold or a raging boil.  Still haven’t figured out the stovetop, will get the hang of it within 20-30 years I’m thinkin’

After a few minutes of simmering, the coconut milk was well blended with the reduced beer and chili oil.

Completely unable to slow this process.  I've come to accept that this is Pete's version of a low simmer

Completely unable to slow this process. I’ve come to accept that this is Pete’s version of a low simmer

After a quick rinse under some tap water, I uncerimoniously dumped just under two dozen large head-on shrimp into the pot.

That's some trademark Pete cooking right there.  Dump some sh*t in, hold off on stirring so a phot can be snapped, then realize I've already overcooked the bottom-most item

That’s some trademark Pete cooking right there.  Dump some sh*t in, hold off on stirring so a photo can be snapped, then realize I’ve already overcooked the bottom-most item

After a quick stir to make sure every shrimp was covered in the liquid, the heat went up and everything boiled together for about 3 minutes.  After doing a quick check for firmness (three minutes was probably too long), I pulled the pot off the heat and stirred in a handful of chopped basil.

These shrimp were way bigger than the last one I bought at the same market.  I just said two pounds, not a size.  I decided to blame any over-doneness on the size since I had no other scapegoats

These shrimp were way bigger than the last ones I bought at the same market.  I just said two pounds, not a size.  I decided to blame any over-doneness on the size since I had no other scapegoats

Next step was plating and as usual I made some ungodly effort to dress things up.  It was pathetic as expected, with each dish getting three shrimp with barely attached heads and a hefty spoonful of the broth they cooked in.

Out of focus or not, just looks like some random piles of shrimp shells in someone's nice dishes

Out of focus or not, just looks like some random piles of shrimp shells in someone’s nice dishes.  Whatever, I see the potential deliciousness in things normal people may not.  At least that’s how I justify pausing and contemplating next to uneaten sausage links on room service trays outside stranger’s hotel rooms

Served with a flourish of dramatically placed basil as a garnish.

Awwwwww yeeeaaahhhhh, Pete!  Put that leaf there!  Show the world what you got!

Awwwwww yeeeaaahhhhh, Pete!  Put that leaf there!  Show the world what you got!

Eating shrimp like this is pretty sloppy, and there really isn’t a delicate way to do it.  Your only choice is to make a mess shelling the coconut milk and chili oil coated shrimp by hand, but I promise it is well worth it.

The shrimp itself doesn’t take on a lot of the chili and coconut milk flavor, but you can dip in the broth remaining in the bowl.  The combination of the rich sweetness and the spicy oil works so awesome with shrimp, and the broth actually tastes of shrimp since the heads and legs have boiled in it.

Speaking of the heads, the best part of head-on shrimp is sucking on the heads after you separate them from the bodies.  There’s only a little meat and shrimp fat to be had, but the flavors of the boil end up concentrated in the head area.  It tastes a little like mild fish liver, but also with a strong sweet shrimp flavor.  Definitely not for everyone, but if you eat lobster roe and tomalley or enjoy the flavor in the body of soft shell crabs, you will enjoy gnawing on some shrimp heads.

Might break this next mega post up into a couple posts with a few days in between.  You must be so excited.

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