Shrimp is coming into full season on the Outer Banks, and now is the time to feast upon the tasty little decapods as much as possible. Eat as much as you can and then start loading up the freezer. Shrimp is easy to freeze and the price is right. Local, head-on shrimp can be found for about $3.50 -$4 a pound. Come winter, you won’t find a head and the price will be triple.
What is the big deal about the head-on shrimp, you ask? I pose that there are actually two Big Deals about head-on shrimp.
The first point of excitement upon coming across a pile of freshly netted whole crustaceans is just that – if you see a head on a shrimp, you can be pretty darn sure that it has not been frozen. The farther away a seafood display is from the point of origin, the less likely it is that the shrimp will be fresh. Heads are removed from shrimp before freezing to prevent spoilage.
The second Big Deal is that the heads are the true flavor crystals of the bottom-feeding food chain. The heads of shrimp contain the digestive, circulatory, reproductive and respiratory systems – all yummy bits contributing rich layers of flavors.
It is these same parts that can break down and spoil the shrimp if not cooked when they are super fresh. Removal of the heads – poppin’ them off – is a great group activity for family and friends. Fifty, or even 100 pounds of shrimp can be cleaned in no time with many hands.
When you get to the last ten pounds, heat up the stock pot, spread out the newspaper and steam them for dinner. Eat half of them, then use the rest for a simple and comforting bisque. Add a green salad and crusty bread and savor the fruits of your labor.
Dry-Steamed Shrimp, Hatteras Style
As shared with me by Hatteras resident Lynne Foster, acclaimed author, local citizen of the year, seafood expert, entrepreneur and wife of Ernie Foster, a third-generation fisherman whose family began the first charter boat business in Hatteras. What follows are her words:
“For now, let me urge everyone to get some of the fresh shrimp when they are coming off the boats. They are usually unloaded in Wanchese late in the week so look for them (ask for them!) in the seafood markets on Friday or Saturday. Sweet!
For the purest flavor place the shrimp, shells on, in a dry pot over medium heat. Do not season. In a few seconds they will begin to release their own juices and there will be enough juices to steam them perfectly. Don’t leave the stove – you will risk overcooking them. Give the pot a few shakes – like you used to do with popcorn – and when they turn pink, they are done. Now season generously with Old Bay, grated lemon peel and celery salt. No sauce necessary.”
Lynne’s recipe is a natural lead-in to a big pot of shrimp bisque. Both elegant and satisfying, this is an easy way to feed a large group. If your family is small, this freezes well and will make a nice treat on a crisp fall day.
Shrimp Bisque for 20
6 lbs. pounds head-on shrimp
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 small sweet onions
2 medium carrots
2 medium stalks celery
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
8 cups water
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ cup sherry
1½ cups heavy cream
Dash of cayenne pepper
Cracked black pepper
Making the Bisque:
Dry-steam the shrimp as Lynne Foster advises. Remove shells and save. Rough chop the shrimp into bite sizes and keep cold.
Over medium heat, melt a third of the butter in a small stock pot. Add onions, carrots, celery and shrimp shells (yep, the heads, too!). Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions start to soften and shells are browned and caramelized. Add tomato paste, thyme and bay leaves and stir until everything is coated. Add water and stir to combine. Heat to simmer for about 30 minutes.
Remove from heat and strain to remove veggies and shells. The remaining liquid is your shrimp stock. Clean stock pot and return to stove. Melt remaining butter and add flour. Whisk to make a blonde roux. The flour will become golden and nutty flavored. This will take 3 to 4 minutes only. Taste to make sure the flour is cooked through and doesn’t taste raw.
Slowly add sherry and hot stock, whisking to smooth. Bring bisque to a simmer and add cream, cayenne and chopped shrimp. Add salt and pepper to taste. Warm until flavors have melded, only about 5 minutes, and serve, or remove and chill until needed.
Heavy-Duty Freezer Bags or Plastic Containers, Water, Freezer
Remove heads. Put shrimp into bags or containers and cover completely with water. If in bag, lay them flat to seal and remove all of the air. Make sure the shells do not poke a hole in the bag. These stack well in the freezer, but they must be frozen separately (not stacked) so the bags do not stick together. Write the date and contents on package with permanent marker. That’s it!