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.

Weird Crap I Cook: Pork Cheeks and Pancakes

This post will continue my long love affair with cheeks.  They look odd, come in unpredictable shapes and size, and I’ve only found one reliable location to buy them in the northeastern US: the Italian Market in Philly.  I’ve heard Savenor’s in Cambridge sells beef cheeks for $20 a pound and my other option is $100 for a 50 pound box in the warehouse district.  Neither of those works too well for me, so I will continue with an endless cycle of loading up occasionally, vacuum sealing and using the meat for a couple years.

Anyhoo, I’ve had these pork cheeks for awhile now and I’ve been looking for a good opportunity to use them.  With a reprise of the “Shhhh, Janet’s sleepin'” Oktoberfest party on tap this past weekend, I retrieved the cheeks from the chest freezer to thaw and started meal planning late last week.

On Saturday, I got going a few hours before folks came over by browning three sliced medium onions and some coarse chopped garlic in lard.

Went with lard because it was in the fridge and I was sick of having it in there.  An extremely common explanation on this blog.  Stop leaving me lard in my mailbox, everyone!

The goal was to give the onions a little color but not cook them fully since they would be braising in with the meat eventually.  While those cooked, I pulled the thawed 3lb package of pork cheeks out of the fridge.

Tim is incredibly wasteful with his food saver bag sizing which is completely contrary to his hippie “ohhh, I compost my coffee grounds and eggshells for my garden” persona.  In reality this thing was a football sized frozen brick when we packaged it and needed lots of room.  I hate when I bail him out

The cheeks were all given a good rinse, patted dry, and piled up on a plate for me to pick through and pretend I knew what I was doing when assessing them.

Cheeks are interesting, every piece looks and feels completely different, though I probably pretended I had opinions on each piece as I picked through them.  Grabbed your cheeks and moved your jaw around a bit yet?  I do that every time I see raw cheek meat

Unlike the beef cheeks from the Italian Market, these didn’t require an intense 30 minutes of finger endangering trimming.  Generally the meat looked pretty good, mostly trimmed of fat and with no extra silver skin or connective tissue hanging on.  The oddest thing was the broad range of size and shape for each piece of meat.

I end up having to scrub both cutting boards in the end but the pattern of stupidity just refuses to end.  Or I refuse to let it end.  Either way, you should fully expect to one day see a third cutting board on top which will go unaddressed for awhile before I start complaining about using three cutting boards instead of just two.  Basically, I foresee this blog capturing my slow decent into insanity

Quick aside: a lot of the bizarre shapes and sizes of the cheeks comes from where I usually get these.  I think the general process is that they butcher a bunch of the same type of animal and throw the cheeks in the same bucket before freezing them into a gigantic block.  My friendly butcher then slices the block while frozen so you end up with some full pieces and some halfies.  Now you know.

With the meat patted dry, the remainder of the ugly pieces trimmed off, and the onions browned, I moved on to seasoning the cheeks.  Nothing special here, just a good amount of light brown sugar, salt, and black pepper.

Got my ingredients in dat shot! Bonus items include half a brown banana for Janet (she eats equal parts expensive fruits and borderline trash), the video monitor (she was nappin’), and an extremely long receipt from Kristi’s pre-Sandy grocery run that we finished before Sandy hit

I seasoned both sides of the meat and in under a minute you could see the salt drawing out the moisture in the meat and the brown sugar trapping it.  With that process going, I removed the onions from the pot, flipped the cheeks and gave the meat another sprinkle of seasoning.

Nice to see that brown sugar melting in.  Also, helps clarify that there was a second plate of cheek meat, not just the cutting board pile.  I am extremely talented at thawing out the exact right amount of meat based on that meat being labeled properly

The cheeks went into the Big Yellow in two waves to brown on all sides and hopefully not build up too much burned sugar on the bottom of the pot.  Not browning the beef cheeks was the biggest mistake I made when cooking that meal and I have beat myself up for it at least once a week in the 22 months since then.  So, I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

I failed at the “no burned sugar spot” attempt.  I have this issue every frigging time I brown stuff in Big Yellow but I’m too lazy to do it in a separate pan that would require separate washing and drying

After 5 or so minutes on each side the first batch came out and the next batch went in.  Eventually leaving me with a nice big pile of browned cheek meat.

Lookin’ dece, pig cheeks.  Some pieces looked like tenderloin, some like cutlets, but all totally different.  I can’t wait for Con to visit his Grandma so I can get more.  Con, go visit your Grandma!

Due to the amount of burned sugar caked on the bottom, I scraped a bit off with a wooden spoon and threw it away before properly deglazing with a solid pour of dry sherry.  The remaining good bits were scraped off the bottom while the sherry cooked down and after a few minutes I added a carton of beef broth and a beer.  As usual, it was the worst beer in my fridge.

This Kentucky Bourbon Ale four pack probably cost between $10 and $15 at our local boutique beer shop and was brought over by a guest weeks ago.  I’m sure it is brewed with love, but it tasted like the Milwaukee’s Best and Southern Comfort boilermakers I chugged in college on more than one occasion.  Had a damp belch just thinking about that one

The sweet bourbon flavored beer seemed like a natural match for the braise and the flavors I’d added so far.  After waiting out the initial foam-up from pouring cold beer into the hot liquid, I added a couple bay leaves, a clove, and turned the heat to medium to let the liquid reduce for about fifteen minutes.

I’ve finally beaten my urge to always make too much braising liquid.  Next up, my urge to eat to the point of sweatyness.  We can beat this thing guys!

Once the liquid had reduced by about 1/3, I added the cheeks back into the dutch oven and positioned them so they were all mostly covered with the liquid.  Then added back in the onions and garlic, poorly attempting to distribute them evenly.

I’ve gotten better at not doubting myself at the last second right before I put a pot in the oven to braise.  Always leads to major mistakes.  Though I am 75% sure most of my friends come here to watch me fail

With everything back in the pot, the lid went on and Big Yellow headed into a 325F oven for two and a half hours.  During that time I hid remotes and iPhones from Janet, tried to distract myself on my computer while she repeatedly hit the caps lock, and fed her dinner while asking her, “you think Daddy is a good cook, right?”

Finally, as people were starting to show up and Janet headed to bed, Big Yellow came out of the oven.  As usual, I stuck my dumb face directly over the pot as I removed the lid and was blind for 30 seconds from the steam burn.  When my eyes could see again, they saw this.

Braising is the best, you knew this was going to be tender and excellent without even sampling it

The dutch oven was set to the side with the lid half open to let the meat rest for 30-45 minutes.  One thing I’ve learned about cheeks and short ribs is they are always better after a rest of some kind.  Even though this turned out very tasty (spoiler alert!!!), if I had to do it again I would have cooked it the day before and let it all rest together for 24 hours.

While that rested I pulled the lid off of the batch of slow cooked Momere Beans (she turns 100 this weekend!!!!  I mean, wowzers!) and let some of the liquid cook off.

Not sure why I didn’t mention these before but they are a required side dish at Oktoberfest.  Momere and Joycie might have given me a good head shaking had they tried these since my lack of par boiling definitely had them less mushy than the standard baked beans, but most people seem to enjoy that little extra firmness

The beans ended up needing a little more time, so while they finished cooking I boiled a bunch of skin-on red potatoes and let them cool once soft.  Mashed those together with a little milk, a couple big spoonfuls of dijon mustard, chopped green onion, an egg, and lots of salt and pepper.

Hate that I got the basics for this recipe from the Down Home with the Neelys.  Their banter is infuriating but they do cook some delicious grub.  I have no idea how Tim lives with himself regularly cooking from recipes

Once the potato mixture had rested for a bit, I formed it into patties, rolled them in some breadcrumbs and pan fried in a little olive oil.

I love potato pancakes and regularly utilize leftover mashed potatoes for them.  I’m not saying that they are good or edible normally, just that I like the idea of them and cook them regularly

When the pancakes went into the pan, I turned on the burner under the cheeks to warm them up a bit.  As each pancake came off, it got a cheek (or two of the smaller cheeks pieces) on top, along with a ladle of braising liquid/onions, and a big spoonful of Momere Beans.

It’s a good sign when the food is good enough to not make me pause and take a mid-eating picture, but always makes the post feel a little incomplete.  This is the last foto, imagine bites that mash everything on the plate together accompanied with lots of grunts and heavy breathing

The meat was tender and cut easily with a fork without being overly tender and mushy.  Cheek meat doesn’t taste much different from a flavorful piece of pork shoulder, but the grain of the meat is distinct and the meat is less fatty.  You could taste the sweetness from the onions, beer, and brown sugar in the liquid, but the best bites had the added sweetness of a forkload of beans.  The pancake was a nice contrast to the beans and pork with the crispy starch and mustard flavor coming through.  All in all, very solid plate of food and I was stunned that the Oktoberfest crew was able to continue eating sausages after finishing their plates since it was true stick-to-your-ribs food.  Solid overstuffed night of eating.

Off to Momere’s birthday party.  It’s gonna be like the rave at the end of Go I think.  Spoof’n, but pretty amazing that she is 100 and still lives alone in a house heated by a wood burning stove.  I think I am going to be especially blown away when I see the full group of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren at the party this weekend.

Good luck to everyone in the Northeast recovering from Sandy.  LBI as many of you have seen already got hit very hard, but we have hope for our little bayside house and will keep you posted on how it fared when I know more.