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Texas Shrimp

by John Raven, Ph.B.

I grew up and formed my dietary ways a long way from the Texas coast, where the best seafood in the world is harvested. I was full grown before I ever tasted a shrimp, which is the topic of this month's installment.

The Gulf of Mexico produces about 80 percent of the total shrimp catch of the U.S., and Texas shrimpers are responsible for about one-third of that amount.

The most popular shrimp from the Gulf is the White Shrimp. It is the best-tasting shrimp according to most people. It's a light colored little beastie with firm, white flesh. When cooked, the shell turns a delicate pink, and the flesh becomes almost transparent.

According to the people who know, there are 342 types of shrimp swimming around. That big number breaks down into warm water shrimp, cold water shrimp, fresh water shrimp and farm- or pond-raised shrimp. We will deal mainly with the warm water shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico with a slight mention of coldwater shrimp.

How to select your shrimp
Shrimp are caught in the wild in big nets that are dragged along the Gulf bottom by shrimp boats. When the net seems to be full, it is raised and dumped on the deck of the shrimp boat. I'm sure you have all seen pictures of this operation. Along with the shrimp come many assorted small fishes, shellfish, tin cans, tennis shoes and the occasional endangered sea turtle. The shrimp are separated from the rest and packed down with ice in the hold as soon as possible. The other stuff is thrown back into the Gulf.

When the boat is full, it drops off its catch at the nearest shrimp processing plant. In most cases, the shrimp heads are removed here. I don't think we need to know what happens to the heads. The tails are quick frozen for distribution.

If you don't buy your shrimp right off the boat, it will be frozen or has been frozen. The best purchase is shrimp that are still frozen -- not "previously frozen". The quality goes down when shrimp is thawed.

Your best bet is to buy your shrimp in the shell. They will have the best texture and flavor. Incidentally, the flavor of shrimp is affected by their diet; some will have a strong iodine flavor from a certain type of seaweed they feed on. Shrimp without a shell has been thawed and handled by someone before you get it. Those sold by major companies are good -- just don't buy any shelled shrimp in the bargain basement.

The shrimp are graded in size according to the number of them it takes to make a pound. For example the numbers 16-20 would indicate there are from 16 to 20 of that size shrimp in a pound. They are sometimes graded by name, but there is no set standard for the name. A shrimp that is Jumbo in one market may be Extra Large in another. There is an unofficial name-grading chart that runs from Extra Colossal (five per pound) to Extra Small (65 per pound). The small shrimp are more than likely the coldwater shrimp we mentioned earlier, which are found off the northwest coast of the U.S.

When selecting your shrimp (unless you live on the coast and or have a fish market you trust), avoid shrimp that are not frozen. Any shrimp that does not look perfect or has an odor of anything other than seawater should be left where it lies.

The one thing to remember when cooking shrimp is they are very delicate and require a very short cooking time. A shrimp two to three inches long will cook in two minutes. What next?
Keep your shrimp frozen until you are ready to use them. You can thaw them in the bottom of the icebox overnight or you can thaw them in a pan of cool water.

There is one important step that should not be skipped when preparing shrimp for cooking - that is removing the "vein" from the tail. The vein is the last part of the shrimp's digestive tract. It looks like a black thread running the length of the tail. If you are going to cook your shrimp in the shell, you split the tail along the entire length about half way through. There you will find the vein, which you pick out and discard. If you are cooking the shrimp sans the shell, you can go in through the top of the back to get the vein.

A good rinse in cool water, pat dry and you're ready to cook.

How to cook 'em
Shrimp can be cooked in a variety of ways. The one thing to remember when cooking them in any fashion is they are very delicate and require a very short cooking time. A shrimp two to three inches long will cook in two minutes, larger ones may require as much as five minutes. For shell-on shrimp, the best indicator of doneness is the shell turning pink. Without the shell, the flesh will firm up and become transparent. Overcooked shrimp will be tough and chewy.

Grilled shrimp

The most popular way to grill shrimp is on skewers. (Do you enjoy eating dinner on a stick?) Bamboo skewers are available most everywhere now. Just soak the skewers in water about 30 minutes before you use them so they don't catch fire or char.

Your shrimp should be clean and deveined. Give them a light touch of salt and pepper or other seasoning you prefer. Remember the taste of shrimp is very delicate, and you don't want to overpower it.

The shrimp go over medium hot coals for about two minutes on the first side, then about a minute on the second side. This would be for the two- to three-inch shrimp -- larger ones will take a little longer. To check doneness, cut one in half and inspect.

A baste on the shrimp will improve flavor and add a little moistness. A good shrimp baste consists of one part lemon juice, two parts olive oil, a little smashed garlic and a tad of black pepper. Give the shrimp a coat of this as soon as they are on the grill. When you turn them give the other side a coat.

Shrimp boil

This is the best way to feed shrimp to a crowd of people: Bring a large container of seasoned water to a rolling boil. Season it with commercial shrimp boil or what you prefer. Dump in the shrimp. Let them cook two or three minutes until they pass your doneness test. Drain them and dump them in the middle of the table on a mat of newspaper. Holler "Soooooooie". Stand back.

Batter-fried shrimp

Season your shelled shrimp with salt and pepper.
  • 1 well-beaten egg
  • 1/2 cup half and half or milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Mix all ingredients to a smooth consistency. Dip the shrimp in the batter and shake off excess. Deep fry in 350°F oil until light golden brown. Drain on paper towels.

Secret stuff: Cuzin Homer Page, who won a lot of prizes with his grilled shrimp, did not use the skewers. His shrimp were grilled on a sheet of foil on the grill. He used rather small shrimp, about three inches long, and he used his sweet/sour Texas finishing sauce for a baste.

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