By Bill Daley, Tribune Newspapers
August 25, 2010
America's favorite seafood? Shrimp. It's easy to see why; shrimp are available fresh or frozen, shell-on and peeled, raw and cooked. Shrimp lend themselves to countless dishes, from curries to gumbos to kebabs to stir fries.
"Mom and I loved shrimp," celebrity chef John Besh recalls in "My New Orleans," a combination cookbook, memoir and tribute to Louisiana's food culture. "Dad enjoyed them but Mom and I loved them, just because they are so easy to cook."
Louisiana is the major source for domestic shrimp. The state's shrimp industry was socked hard by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, as Besh noted in his book (written before the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico), and has been battered by cheaper foreign competition.
For Besh and others, shrimp is more than a food; it's a way of life.
"It's not just the critters we need to protect here but also the spirit of our shrimping community," Besh wrote.
The region's shrimpers are the equivalent of the family farm to Besh. "In our neck of the woods, that means everything," he said in a telephone interview."
Besh, whose restaurants include August, Luke, Domenica and Besh Steak, is not the only New Orleans chef gung-ho on the local product.
"I think it's important to know where the shrimp are from because I personally think the Gulf shrimp are the tastiest and the best," said Susan Spicer, who, as chef/owner of Bayona restaurant, has made a reputation for using underused and underappreciated fish species on her menus.
In terms of having environmental cred, wild and farmed shrimp from the United States and Canada get the nod from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program. Seafood Watch recommends avoiding shrimp from other countries.
Which shrimp is which? Consumers should ask at restaurants and retail outlets, said Sheila Bowman, outreach director for the California-based program. "The seafood supply chain has good information available that will tell you how it was caught, where it was caught," she said. "If a restaurant or a retailer can't tell you, it's because they haven't made it a priority to understand or know about the information."
"Not all shrimp are created equal," Besh insisted. "Domestic shrimp are much more scrutinized. Take the Gulf of Mexico for instance, where the shrimping season has just begun. Never have there been waters more controlled or tested on such a regular basis. They are making sure shrimp caught in these waters are not polluted." Of course, as the Gulf situation keeps unfolding new advisories or warning could be issued.
Spicer relies on a shrimper who goes farther west in the Gulf of Mexico, near Morgan City, La., to get shrimp.
"He delivers several times a week himself — which means he shrimps all night, then drives back to New Orleans and delivers to his restaurants all morning and afternoon. I don't know when the guy sleeps," she said.
Spicer likes using the Gulf's brown and white shrimps.
"I usually use a 16-20 count, which means there are between 16 to 20 shrimp per pound," she said. "If the shrimp are headless, a count of 21-25 is a good size. The smaller the number, the bigger the shrimp and the higher the price."
Besh uses both the brown shrimp, which tends to arrive at the market in May and June, and the larger white shrimp, which can be found from August onward. While larger shrimp are more popular, they also pose somewhat of a challenge.
"They're more prone to be tougher and chewier," he said. "If you go for medium-sized shrimp they'll be more forgiving and, frankly, there's sometimes less of that iodine flavor."
Whatever shrimp you buy, make sure to enjoy them to the max and showcase them for all their worth. For, as Bowman notes, the best way to treat the world's shrimp population may be not to eat them so often but relish them more.
"We have this all-you-can-eat-shrimp mentality," she said. "Shrimp is not a commodity that can withstand that kind of demand. We have to rethink overeating seafood like the salmon, tuna and shrimp that we love. We're loving them to death."
FDA: Gulf seafood is safe
The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a major environmental disaster that has left chefs, consumers and experts wondering and worrying over the region's rich aquatic bounty. While a survey by the University of Minnesota's Food Industry Center found 44 percent of respondents wouldn't eat seafood from the Gulf, others are consuming it while keeping a watchful, waiting attitude.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says on its Web site that the Gulf situation and its impact on seafood safety are being closely monitored.
"Although crude oil has the potential to taint seafood with flavors and odors caused by exposure to hydrocarbon chemicals, the public should not be concerned about the safety of seafood in stores at this time," the FDA noted. "Fish and shellfish harvested from areas unaffected by the closures are considered safe to eat."
Chefs Collaborative, a Boston-based national network of chefs working on sustainability issues, has advised members to continue supporting Gulf fisheries.
"The testing has been so rigorous that our understanding is any seafood that's coming to market is safe to eat," said Melissa Kogut, the program's executive director.
While a huge quantity of oil was spilled, John Besh, the New Orleans-based restaurateur, said most people don't realize just how big the Gulf of Mexico is.
"The spill happened 45 miles offshore in water over 1 mile deep," he said. "That's not where the shrimping is done."
"A large portion of the fisheries is not affected," Besh said. "We need to spread the message the food here is good to eat."
How to buy shrimp
New Orleans chef John Besh offers tips on what to look for:
Dark brown heads, legs or tails can mean old shrimp. The color should be light, "almost transparent in a way," Besh said.
Use fresh shrimp immediately, if possible, or within a day.
Whole, fresh head-on shrimp should still have antennae attached; shrimp without them were likely frozen.
Besh said shrimp should smell "fresh and briny from the sea." Perform a "sniff test" at the counter, if you like. If the store refuses, try an old Julia Child trick: Buy the shrimp, open the package right there and complain, loudly, if unsatisfied.
Buy shrimp with the shells still on; use them to make a shrimp stock for use in recipes. "Shrimp shells have more flavor than the actual shrimp meat itself," Besh said. Here's his simple recipe: "Toast the shells in olive oil, add onion, garlic and celery. Cover with water and cook 45 minutes."
Frozen shrimp can be as good as fresh, Besh said. He prefers shell-on shrimp because they're less prone to freezer burn. He also prefers to thaw the shrimp himself when he's ready to use them, rather than buy thawed shrimp at the market.
Avoid precooked shrimp, Besh said. "I can't control it. I'm at the whim of someone else cooking my food."
Develop a relationship with a reputable fish dealer who cares about the freshness and quality of the product.
Source: Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook