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Preparing shrimp boils down to taste, looks


To peel or not to peel, that was the question. The other night right before supper, I peeled and was quickly chastised by my wife.

Shrimp taste better when they are cooked with their shells on them, she said. It was her opinion that removing shrimp shells before they cook makes the shrimp tough.

I disagreed. My opposition was not based on any strong beliefs. It was primarily based on the fact that I had just spent about half an hour pulling the shells off a handful of raw shrimp.

And like most folks who have just been told that their labors were wrong-headed, I felt testy.

While we were at it, my wife and I also disagreed on whether or not it was necessary to remove the dark intestinal vein at the top of shrimp.

My wife said it wasn't. The main reason for removing the vein was aesthetic, she said, to make the shrimp look prettier.

I argued for removal. Even though it felt foreign to me, I supported the "body beautiful" position. Again, I did not really harbor strong convictions on shrimp aesthetics. But I had just spent a lot of my time cleaning out those unsightly, if inconsequential, veins.

I had to defend my work.

So I proposed a peel-off at the supper table.

The peeled and deveined shrimp, as well as their intact colleagues, were steamed and dipped in a mustard-mayonnaise sauce. Both were eaten and washed down with ample quantities of cold beer.

The results were dramatic. Attitudes changed. Instead of testy, I felt mellow, at peace with the world, especially with the shellfish. Rather than combative, I became cooperative, anxious to linger at the table, to refill a fellow diner's empty glass. And instead of prissy, I was downright down-home, eating the shrimp with my fingers and licking lingering sauce off each fingertip.

I was also willing to admit that I was wrong. The peel-off convinced me that the time to take the shells off shrimp is after they are cooked, not before. The shrimp that were steamed with their shells on had more flavor, and more moisture, than their bare-skinned buddies.

On the question of whether to devein or not to devein, I concluded that it didn't really matter. Deveined shrimp may be more pleasing to the eye. But the taste buds don't know the difference.

As more shrimp was eaten and more beer consumed, other areas of agreement emerged.

Namely, that steaming was an excellent way to cook fresh shrimp. We used a crab steamer, but any number of setups, including tossing the shrimp in a colander resting in a covered pot of boiling water, could be used. The key is to steam the shrimp only long enough to get the gray out of their bodies, about 5 minutes. When the shrimp turn pink, get them off the steamer.

And it was agreed that the dipping sauce, made with homemade mayonnaise and Dijon mustard, was the best thing a shrimp could swim in, short of salt water.

There was discussion of the fact that the sauce calls for using raw eggs, a practice some health officials consider risky because of the slight possibility that the raw eggs could cause food poisoning.

A compromise was reached. Folks wanting to avoid raw eggs could make the sauce using pasteurized eggs or by adding Dijon mustard to store-bought mayonnaise. The rest of us could make homemade mayo and take our chances.

While this session solved some questions, I can see there are other shrimp cooking issues that need exploring.

For instance, there is the question of whether shrimp taste better when they are cooked with their heads on or with their heads removed.

That debate and the accompanying meal promise to be zesty.

From "Cooked Fish and Shellfish" by Ruth A. Spear (Ballantine Cookbook $4.95):

Mustard mayonnaise dip for steamed shrimp

Makes 1 cup.

1 egg plus 1 egg yolk

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 cup oil ( 1/2 cup olive oil, 1/2 cup salad oil)

Put the egg, egg yolk, lemon juice, salt, pepper and mustard in a blender or food processor. Run until blended, 2 to 3 seconds. With the motor running, pour the oil very slowly through the top of the blender or through the feed tube of the food processor. Once the mixture has the consistency of heavy cream, add the oil faster. Taste for seasoning.

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