April 2, 2008

Secret Shrimp Throw-Down!

Once upon a time, my dad took me to a certain restaurant in a certain small town, Illinois, for my sixteenth birthday. This was a big deal. The restaurant had been “written up” in the New York Times, he was proud of saying, for the very dish we were going there to eat. They called it their House shrimp, and it was fantastic. Super-jumbo tiger shrimp or prawns -- in the shell -- lounging deep in a bowl of buttery, deeply tomato-and-spice sauce, with tons of crispy-soft bread for dipping. Ya gotta eat it all with your hands. It’s sublime. They bring you a big bib, a stack of cloth napkins, and a bowl of clear water to help clean yourself up as worked. I even remember what I wore that night. The only pink dress I ever owned. It was a very soft pink, crisp cotton, with eyelet lace on the shoulder straps and here and there. There’s no doubt that my dad managed to procure some wine for me (duh). This is one of my best memories of life with my dad. As everyone who has known me truly well knows, there was a lot of difficulty between my dad and I. And this makes every good memory precious, indeed. I think of him always when I make this dish. It was one of his all-time favorite, it’s a New Orleans-style dish, and he is the man, after all, who claims to have dated Ernest Hemmingway’s maid when he lived in the B.E.

This recipe was held secret for many, many years. We used to try to replicate it at home with varying degrees of success. Then, a good friend of mine married a line cook from that restaurant! And bingo! he told me how to make it. Now, I have no way of confirming this is the recipe ver batum. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. As it stands right now it’s just something this one guy told me one time. But as y’all know it’s become a tradition at the Smith Family Reunions whenever it’s my brother Bill’s and my turn to cook. It’s fast, simple, and fabulous. You really can’t screw it up.

However, you can mess it up a bit. There are tricks. My brother and I make this recipe differently, too. He had an odd experience that I think has ruined his judgment in the matter. Last year, after our father’s death (as I remember it) Bill decided to go to this nameless restaurant and have the shrimp. He’d never had it! I had no idea. My dad never took him there? I thought I remembered Bill being there with us on my birthday, but who knows. Memory is as unreliable as a cheap aluminum soup pot.

Anyway, they must have been out of the huge shrimp that night, and they served it to my bro out of the shell, over rice. What!!!!???!!!! Nu-uh. And what did he say? “It was good!” No it wasn’t! No one in their right mind eats The Secret Shrimp out of the shell over rice! Fogettaboutit [said in Cajun mafia accent]!

Does anyone ever listen to Car Talk on NPR? And you know how there are two brothers, the mechanics, and one of them always says at the end of the show, “… and whatever you do, don’t drive like my brother!” and the other replies, “No, don’t drive like MY brother!” Yet of course it’s obvious that they do love and respect one another, ya? *Well, this is the spirit in which I make this comparison between my version of this dish and my brother’s.

So now he thinks it’s ok to serve it that way. Not me. Not in a million years. And so I am giving you the “real” version, my version, the one you get when the chef is motivated enough to get the real ingredients, for Heaven’s sake.

And Bill? I challenge you to send me your instructions. We’ll see if a throw-down can ensue.

Secret House Shrimp

12 Super Colossal Tiger Prawns (6-8 per pound), deveined and left in the shell, thawed if bought frozen
4 jars Heinz Chili Sauce
1 pound salted butter
1 bunch fresh parsley, roughly chopped
1 Tablespoon chopped dried oregano
1 cup sweet vermouth

Put everything in a large, heavy pot, like a Dutch oven. Turn the heat on low. Let the whole thing simmer relatively undisturbed until the shrimp are cooked through and the sauce is quite hot, but not boiling. Serve in bowls with a good French bread for dipping.

TIPS: Warnings toward the avoidance mistakes (*made by my brother, though he doesn’t know it):

1. Do not boil the sauce! You don't want it to emulsify!
2. Let it all cool significantly before serving. This means, from piping hot (but not boiling) cool it 20-30 minutes. The shrimp will hold onto a lot of heat, especially if they're big. Of course you don’t want it to be cold, but the shrimp need to be almost room temp so they can be handled easily.

Making sure that you follow the above Tips 1 & 2 will have this magical effect: The butter will stay to more or less separate from the tomato sauce, almost, and it will be clear. This makes for a marvelously varied dipping adventure, and your bread swaths through the degrees and ratios and combinations of butter, chili, herbs, and combinations thereof.

There now. The challenge is set. Bill? :-)


Ms Unseen/MsF/Redlotusblossom said...

OK, so my brother tried to respond to this challenge a couple of weeks ago, and lost his own comment in the ether somewhere. Who knows why. Basically, he said: You're on, b***h. So, once we get that together I'll report.

Ricardo said...

great stuff here ...excellent recipe...thx for sharing.well done..saw you on foodbuzz

Ms Unseen/MsF/Redlotusblossom said...

Thanks, Ricardo! Come back any time. :-) Hope you try the shrimp. It really is primo.