Sunday, October 31, 2010

Salt baked shrimp

I mentioned in my previous post that I bought some shrimp along with the conch I used there. What I didn't mention was that these shrimp were about 18 per pound (headless) which makes them Extra Jumbo. A pretty good price for such sizable shrimp too, I thought, until I did some math and realized that a good price per pound still meant I was paying nearly a buck a shrimp. So, the question became what to make that would take best advantage of the unusual size I was paying a premium for.

My original plan was to try a dish I remember from a Good Eats episode where you bury the shrimp in salt and cook in a baking dish. That, it turns out, is called salt roasted shrimp; salt baked shrimp is something else entirely. It's actually salt boiled, deep-fried and then stir-fried shrimp.

On it says "The name is a result of the historic popularity of salt-baked chicken, which led to many foods being called "salt-baked," even though they were not, says Yin-Fei Lo." I'm assuming that's Eileen Yin-Fei Lo who's written a bunch of Chinese cookbooks and, although I know nothing of this historic popularity of salt-baked chicken, I'll take her word for it.

The three step process would be easy enough to do in a restaurant kitchen but it's a bit of a pain at home.I simplified by merging the deep-frying and stir-frying steps into a shallow fry and making some other adjustments to compensate. It does lose a little by this--mainly the little bits of fresh hot pepper embedded in the crust. That's a shame as it add as a rather nice dimension of flavor. I'm not sure I'm explaining this well so I looked for an image to illustrate. I couldn't find one, but you can see them in this salt baked squid image I found.

I just noticed in all the salt baked shrimp images, the shells are whole which means they weren't deveined. Big shrimp means big veins filled with lots of icky shrimp crap so I don't consider that a viable option. I found that I could cut through the back of the shell and the back of the shrimp simultaneously with a pair of scissors so it was pretty easy to get through the batch. It was a two handed operation, though, so tough to get a picture of the process.

In the original recipe, the boiling step was just a 10 second blanch, to remove liquids, the deep frying for a minute to cook and create the cornstarch crust and the stir fry a few moments to coat with salt. I adjusted to a 40 second boil to cook the shrimp most of the way through and then 30 seconds per side in the shallow oil to create the crust. I put the salt directly into the cornstarch slurry along plenty of black and white pepper. That technically turns this into a version of the much more sensibly named salt and pepper shrimp, but I started out making salt baked shrimp so I'm sticking with that for the post.

Here's the result:

I probably should have used a thicker cornstarch mixture to get a more robust crust, but this turned out pretty well, I thought.The crust is light and crisp with a surprising amount of flavor past bold salt and spice, the shells crisped up too and the shrimp cooked up tender. I was winging it on the oil temperature and cooking times so the good results were probably due to jumbo shrimp having jumbo margins of error too. That makes it a good use of the large shrimp so mission accomplished. The coating to meat ratio wouldn't have worked with anything much smaller so there's that too.

The open shell did capture a bit of oil, though. The alternative was leaving the veins in so I think I made the right choice. I'll need to do some better draining next time or at least serve with enough rice to offset the greasiness. The greasiness moves this from sophisticated dim sum to a beer-accompanying finger food. Not bad at all, just not classy.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lambi au Riz

Aaaand we're back.

To be honest, it's too soon. My kitchen is still unbearably hot most days and South Florida is weeks from its first harvest of the season, but a new market (I'm not going to call it a farmer's market has there's no sign of farmers as yet) has opened up at UM literally steps from my office and there's just too much tempting there to not start cooking again.

Case in point, the seafood stand (whose name and proprietor I would have made note of if I had decided at the time that I was definitely going to be writing this up) had some fresh local conch and shrimp at quite a reasonable price. I've never cooked with conch before so I bought a pound.

I did a bit of research to find my options on what to do with it. Basically, they were fritters, ceviche, chowder and stew. I haven't been impressed the fritters I've tried--isolated rubbery bits in a big ball of dough--and I'm suspicious of the texture of notoriously tough conch in a ceviche. So it's down to chowder and stew which are the same thing give or take a couple cups of stock.

Oh, there's also grilled conch steaks, but I really wasn't up for that as the conch I bought was cleaned but not tenderized. I had the choice of banging on them with a hammer for a while or grinding them up in the food processor as most of the chowder and stew recipes called for. On most days I think I'd go with the hammering, but not today. I settled on chowder for a while, but eventually switched over to a stew. And, as you'll note from the title of this post, the dish mutated further.

The stew and chowder recipes generally start with either salt pork or bacon. The bacon struck me as a more readily available substitution so I was going to go with salt pork until I read the recipe from the Bacon Cookbook which made a convincing case for bacon's smokiness pairing well with the clam-like flavor of the conch. So three thick slices, cut into lardons, went into the pot along with a little cooking oil (I'm using a 50/50 olive/canola blend for this sort of thing these days), cooked slowly until crisp and then removed.

Then I added:
a knob of butter
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 small onion, diced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
2 small hot peppers (from the back of my refrigerator. Serranos I think.), minced
and a pinch of salt.

A stalk or two of celery should properly go in at this point too, but I haven't got any on hand and wouldn't miss it if it's gone.

I turned the heat down to medium low and sweated them for seven minutes to soften. Then I added a little more oil and two Tablespoons of flour and cooked for seven minutes more to make a roux. Given what I did to the recipe later, this step was probably wasted, but you've got other options so I'll leave it in here.

After the roux was nice and golden, in went:
1 14 ounce can of diced tomatoes, not drained
about the same amount of shrimp stock
2 teaspoons each dried oregano, basil, thyme and marjoram (I have three out of the four fresh at the moment so I considered going with a bouquet garni, but I think dried makes more sense for a stew)
1 pound ground conch (I thought I'd have less, as the recipes advised to trim off the tough orange bits, but the orange bits on mine didn't seem any tougher than the rest so there must be more that was already removed)
salt and pepper

I brought that to a boil, covered, turned the heat to low and simmered for 40 minutes.

At this point it was time to add a starch: small-diced potato according to most recipes with options of yam and yucca. But one recipe, at, suggested adding rice. That recipe is the only result Google finds for the phrase "lambi au riz" so maybe the author made it up himself. Lambi appears to be the name for the Haitian version of conch stew, though.

Anyway, I added a cup of rice (rinsed) and cooked for 20 minutes more.

Here's the result topped with parsley, scallion and the reserved bacon.

And, after a taste, I discover something I should have noticed rather earlier. I've just made a batch of conch jambalaya and a pretty darn tasty one at that. Actually, the flavor is somewhere between jambalaya and Manhattan clam chowder. It starts with a bright tomato/shrimp gravy, rich and buttery and rounded with herbs, and fades into a smokey brininess. There's a sweetness up front and a bit of bitterness in the aftertaste too. Not enough to be actively unpleasant, but enough to prompt the next bite.

The textures worked out really well too. The rice has a little firmness to it and the conch just a little chew. Lucked out there, getting the timing right. The flavors are going to be better tomorrow, but I'll bet the texture's all downhill from here.

Still, an auspicious return to the blog, I think for an experimental dish to turn out so well and so interesting. Coming up next (although quite how soon I'm not sure) is a different take on mamey ice cream and I'd like to try making fabada. Xixón Café sells fabada kits with the Spanish beans and pork products portioned out, but there's some disagreement in recipes as to what else goes in there and on the details of the cooking method so it's not quite as easy as that.