A Quest for Down East Pink Gold
There is great anticipation among New England food lovers each winter for the upcoming bounty. We’re not talking about oysters, even though they remain one of our favorite local delicacies. We’re talking about shrimp, specifically Maine shrimp, whose arrival is met with ever-increasing fanfare. A recent proclamation on Chowhound captured it well, citing both their wonderful taste and their versatility in a broad range of recipes. What’s surprising is that many in New England aren’t familiar with them, although a recent article from Midcoast Maine Free Press suggests that may be changing. We decided to share our own discovery.
Spending a good deal of time over the years on the bayous of Louisiana and in the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia changed our perception of shrimp forever. We were introduced to White shrimp, Brown shrimp, Pink shrimp, Royal Reds, etc. Knowing spawning cycles and seasonal patterns was not an exercise in science but rather a necessity for gastronomic indulgence. Buying the right shrimp at the right time from the right vendor was the recipe for the right dish. It spoiled us. We found that not all shrimp was created equal.
Unfortunately, we never gave much thought to local, New England shrimp. Was it lack of marketing? Could it be ignorance on our part? We don’t know, but our epiphany came during a wonderful Chinese New Year meal prepared by some neighbors a couple of years ago. This was the first time we heard about Maine shrimp. They explained that the tiny, sweet, cold water delicacies from the Gulf of Maine were only available in late winter – and only for a very brief time. Our neighbors were fortunate to have a camp on an island off the Maine coast, giving them an upper hand in knowing about this regional specialty.
Intrigued, we immediately began looking for these small crustaceans, but without much success. Then one day late last season, out of the corner of our eyes, we saw them at a local market: tiny, bright, and pink. So colorful in fact that we thought they were cooked, even though they were raw. We didn’t purchase any that day because we had existing dinner plans that evening. The next day we returned only to discover that they were gone, the season brought to an abrupt halt. Just like that. No more Maine shrimp would be arriving that year. Talk about poor timing!
This year we vowed to be more prepared, especially after reading an article about them in The New York Times informing us that the 2010 season would be extended through May. That was welcome news for our culinary mission to find and successfully prepare these little, elusive jewels. And found them we have from Maine to Massachusetts.
So what’s the big deal?
These cold water shrimp are completely different from any shrimp we’ve prepared and eaten. They are extremely delicate, sweet and succulent with a soft, melt-in-the-mouth quality. While many Mainers eat them raw, we prefer them cooked, just quickly enough for them to begin releasing some of their sweet “liquor.” Part of their characteristic charm is the subtlety of their flavor. Also important to us is that they’re from New England. (Perhaps biasing us a bit.) Not all are as enthusiastic as we, though, and Jacqueline Church offers a counter opinion. It wouldn’t be New England without a diversity of views, even if we’re talking about what’s in our own back yard.
Devra First from The Boston Globe referred to them as our own regional bugs. Having lived in the south, we agree with her and regard them as New England’s very own version of the crawfish, crawdads or mud bugs (as those in New Orleans refer to them). Although they visually resemble crawfish in appearance, Maine shrimp are slightly larger in size, lending themselves rather well to crawfish substitution in Southern dishes. Purists may argue this point, as that is where the similarities end, especially since Maine shrimp are from saltwater and crawfsh are from fresh water. Indeed, they are a different species with a different taste, but they certainly work in the kitchen.
Into the kitchen
We found many tasty tips for cooking Maine shrimp. Nancy Harmon Jenkins at Zester Daily says they make a wonderful ceviche while also being a great base for sauces. The Original Maine Shrimp Cookbook is a good, local read that helps evangelize the Maine shrimp gospel. Even UNH Slow Food offered a class last month on what to do and how to handle Maine Shrimp.
We enjoy the flexibility in preparation,with most approaches being rather simple and quick. We either sauté them Spanish style with garlic, oil and a dusting of cayenne or boil them with Old Bay seasoning. Leftovers can be shelled and made into a creative shrimp salad. Shelled shrimp can also be used for such dishes as Low Country shrimp and grits, or for a creative, lemon-infused scampi, which adds a sweetness to the latter much like adding Limoncello would. One other interesting preparation we found is serving them in a stir-fry over coconut scallion rice. With the Maine shrimp in season now, we have them at least once a week. Even our teenage shrimp hater comes back for seconds. One final note on preparation: exercise caution because their small size makes them easy to overcook, so careful preparation is the key.
These little beauties are not expensive and range in price from $3.99 per pound unshelled to $8.99 per pound shelled. Two pounds easily feed a family of four. If you don’t see them, ask your local fishmonger to get them for you. Be sure to specify your preference for shelled or unshelled. With the season extended to May, there is no excuse not to indulge.
-The Two Palaverers
Photos credits: Bangor Daily News, Laura Ciampa, Rob Ciampa