As winter in Michigan crawls through the long, dark month of January, there arises in the mind of this mufflered and down-smothered land mammal the small, bright memory of a special treat from the sea that will soon, contrary to all ordinary expectations, make its brief annual appearance at our local fishmonger’s.
Maine shrimp, or Pandalus borealis, are a small wonder of nature’s bounty. the species matures first as a male at approximately 2.5 years of age, and then becomes a mature female at approximately 3.5 years of age. They rarely live beyond 5. Although Pandalus borealis is a pan subarctic species, the population in the Gulf of Maine does not migrate into and out of these waters. They stay there for their entire lives, staying onshore as juveniles, moving offshore at approximately 1 year old. Egg-bearing females move inshore to spawn in fall/winter. With this ingenious means to maximize reproduction, Maine shrimp are an important link in marine food chains, feeding on plankton and sea-bed invertebrates, and being consumed in turn by cod, redfish, silver and white hake. . . and winter-weary humans!
Small, coldwater shrimp also live on the west coast, from northern California to Alaska, including Pandalus jordanii and Pandalus platyceros (also called spot prawn), along with many other species. The relatively larger biomass of the Pacific Ocean allows for longer seasons of these shrimp and they are therefore enjoyed fresh locally more widely than on the east coast.
Commercial fishing of Maine shrimp began in earnest at the end of the 1950s and, like most unregulated activities, soon peaked in 1969 with an unprecedented harvest of 28.2 million pounds. Over-fishing continued for almost another decade until the shrimp population–even with all those extra females–crashed; the harvest for 1977 was just over 85,000 pounds and the fishery closed the next year.
Fishing resumed cautiously in the early 1980s, and since that time, harvest of Maine shrimp has been managed through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which establishes the duration of each year’s shrimp season (lately only 4-7 weeks per year) based on population monitoring. Population numbers of Maine shrimp have been low to moderate for the last several years, an unfortunate symptom of the overall reduced marine biomass of the Atlantic Ocean, and this has kept the fishing season fairly short.
Here in Ann Arbor, we are very lucky to have a savvy and well-connected fishmonger, Mike Monahan, who ships these beauties in fresh several times a week during their brief season. Mike, in fact, no longer even advertises the shrimps’ advent, since his customers appear at January’s end, on cue, “like starving sea mammals,” to ask for them themselves.
Shrimp are a very good source of vitamin D–the sunshine vitamin–and it seems almost miraculous that they should swim into fishing range at just the time when we could use a good dose of this nutrient. Shrimp are also rich in protein, and the important trace mineral selenium, as well as other minerals, and vitamin B12.
But perhaps even more than these impressive nutritional attributes, what distinguishes the Maine shrimp from its larger, Gulf of Mexico cousins is its superior taste and texture. Maine shrimp are small but their taste is sweet and delicate and their meat is very tender. The Japanese highly prize them for sushi as ama ebi, or sweet shrimp, which are eaten raw. A large part of the east-coast catch is bought up by restaurants in order to take advantage of the short season of the fresh-caught shrimp. Much of the catch is also frozen for retail sale, or cooked, peeled and frozen. Since the results of processed shrimp vary only, in my mind, in degrees of disappointment, the best way to enjoy this delicacy is fresh. And here the primary difficulty will be that of availability. Fresh Maine shrimp are very perishable, must be handled very carefully at the point of sale and therefore must be shipped in small amounts. The freshest, that is, sushi quality, will be found only at a fishmonger’s of sterling reputation. They are worth the effort of searching for in your area, though. Start looking for them at the start of February.
If you do find these delectable shrimp fresh, by far the best way to eat them (if you don’t choose to enjoy them raw) is to prepare them very simply. Forget the spicy salsas and don’t mix them with too many other ingredients where their delicate flavor will be lost. Luckily, they are very reasonably priced (from $7-$9 per pound) and you can count on a pound to feed two people. Therefore, for a pound of Maine shrimp, in the shell but without heads, heat a good knob of butter with a swirl of olive oil in a sauté pan. In a mortar and pestle, pound 1-3 cloves of garlic with a 1/2 teaspoon Celtic sea salt into a smooth paste. When the butter froths, add shrimp and stir constantly for about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the garlic paste, stirring to amalgamate. The shrimp will release their own sublime liquor in reaction to the salty garlic. Serve immediately with good sourdough rye bread and butter and chilled white wine. You will find the shells almost soft enough to eat, but keep any discarded shells as they make a very tasty broth alone, or with other fish carcasses.
A very simple Maine shrimp salad can be made by bringing a pot of salted water to a boil. Immerse a pound of peeled shrimp in boiling water and gently stir for no more than two minutes. Immediately drain and immerse in ice water to halt cooking. Carefully remove shrimp and mix with about 5 tablespoons of homemade mayonnaise and minced green onion to taste. Serve on a bed of tender salad greens or toasted sourdough bread.
Raw shrimp is delicious as ceviche. Simply remove the shells and marinate a couple of hours in a mixture of lemon juice and salt. Drain, pat dry and mix with chopped tomatoes, peppers, onion and a dash of olive oil. Serve with wedges of avocado.
If you have missed the Maine shrimp season or had no luck finding them fresh near you and all I have left you with is a yen for crustaceans, then here is an absolutely delicious recipe for any kind of fresh shrimp, or scallops, or even a sweet, firm fish like monkfish.
Shrimp and Vegetables with Champagne
(Rather than Champagne, I actually prefer a Blanquette de Limoux, notable for predating Champagne by about 150 years as the first sparkling wine developed by Benedictine monks at Saint Hilaire in 1531. The wine is delicious and moderately priced. Of course, serve the remainder of the bottle with the shrimp!)
Peel 1 1/4 pounds of fresh medium or large Gulf shrimp. In a saucepan melt 1 tablespoon of butter and sauté 1 cup each of thinly sliced carrots, onions, leeks and celery. Add 2 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon dried), a bay leaf, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, covered, for 5-10 minutes. Add 1 1/4 cups homemade fish broth (preferably broth made with shrimp shells) and cook, uncovered, for 5 minutes or so to reduce the liquid. Add 4 tablespoons minced shallots and one cup of Champagne and reduce liquid by half over high heat. Add 4 tablespoons very thick raw cream and stir to blend thoroughly. Add peeled shrimp and stir over high heat for about 1 1/2 minutes, or until all shrimp are pink and just cooked. Taste and add salt if needed. Serve immediately as an elegant first course.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2005.