It’s shrimp season in Maine. In these coldest days of winter, small, sweet, tender Maine shrimp — aka Icelandic shrimp and Pandalus borealis — head south from the Arctic into the relatively warmer waters off the Maine coast to reproduce. Actually, reproduce is not quite the operative term, at least not in the conventional sense because up until a few weeks prior all these egg-bearing lady shrimp were males. Somehow, Mother Nature has arranged that, at the moment of reproduction, all the guys turn into girls, grow eggs and head south. And so it goes, to the advantage of lovers of this special delicacy.
Up and down coastal roads and byways, you’ll find vendors stationed next to their pickups piled high with plump, rosy-colored shrimp. Whole shrimp sell for as little as $1 a pound (I’m not joking), a price that can rise to as much as $6 for what they call picked-out shrimp, just the sweet meat alone without heads, shells or the gray-green roe that each one of these critters carries. Sound expensive? OK, where else you can buy such pure unadulterated protein at $6 a pound?
This year the shrimp run appeared in Maine’s waters right around Christmas and is expected to last until May, an unusually abundant season. That hasn’t always been the case. Since the fishery collapsed in the late 1970s because of overfishing, it has been meticulously regulated by the state. Maine fishermen, I’m told, take more than 85% of the total catch in the Northeast. Not surprising because Maine waters, cold as they are in January, are at the southern extreme of the species’ range. South is a relative term, of course. It’s not exactly comfortable out on the Gulf of Maine, especially when winter storms blow in, but this is day-boat fishing, meaning at least the fishermen get to put into a snug harbor at the end of the day.
The amount of bycatch in shrimp trawling has been a concern in the past but new gear, so-called topless nets developed at the University of New Hampshire, seem to have eased these concerns considerably and made for a more efficient harvest, while allowing herring and other fin fish to thrive by escaping over the top of the net.
Sweet and delicate
As shrimp go, Maine shrimp are small. Those who consider ideal shrimp to be those galumphing tiger prawns, raised on tropical fish farms in Southeast Asia, should stop reading right here. We’re talking no more than 3- or 4- inch long shrimp, with a wild, sweet tenderness that comes from living in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. But because they’re so tender, they need attentive handling. In a moment, they can go from firm and tasty to overcooked and mushy. Given that, my favorite recipe is ceviche (pictured at top), in which the shrimp are not cooked at all but marinated for 20 to 30 minutes in citrus juice (see recipe).
Shrimp also can be broiled, especially while still in their shells, which are tender enough to add a little crunch to a dish along with a boatload of calcium. And they can be boiled or steamed. But any of these methods, honestly, require just 60 to 90 seconds, no more, on the heat. If you want to boil them, use a long-handled sieve or one of those pasta pots with a removable insert. Bring salted water to a rolling boil and dip the whole or headless shrimp, holding them in boiling water for just a minute or so. As soon as they’re done, drain, tip them out onto a surface (the dining room table, covered with newspapers, is the way we do it in Maine) and commence shelling and eating immediately. You can use any kind of sauce for dipping — melted butter, extra-virgin olive oil and vinegar, tomato salsa — but remember that the taste of these shrimp is sweet and delicate and should not be overwhelmed by extravagant flavors.
Another recommended technique yields a version of the favorite Spanish tapa, gambas al ajillo: Heat olive oil sizzling hot in a skillet large enough to hold all the shrimp, then throw in a lot of finely chopped garlic and the shrimp (headless, but with the shells still on), and just toss them in the olive oil and garlic until they change color, then serve immediately.
A preferred way of using Maine shrimp, in my kitchen at least, is as a base for a pasta sauce. Some people like to simmer garlic in cream, then toss the peeled or shelled shrimp with chopped flat-leaf parsley, then add the almost-cooked, drained pasta to finish cooking with the shrimp in the sauce. That’s a rich dish, indeed, and I am more partial to a version made with white wine and olive oil (see recipe).
Where can you get Maine shrimp? Good fishmongers on both coasts often stock Maine shrimp during their season, but to order frozen shrimp, shelled or not, straight from the source go to Port Clyde Fresh Catch, which was one of the first community-supported fisheries, or CSFs. It operates out of the little seacoast village of Port Clyde, at the confluence of Muscongus and Penobscot bays, and is worth a visit if you’re planning a summer holiday in Maine. In the meantime, Maine shrimp will give you a sense of what it’s really all about.
Maine Shrimp Ceviche
- Drain the shrimp of any excess liquid and put them in a small bowl with the lime juice, tossing the shrimps with a fork to coat them completely with juice. Set aside but for no more than half an hour.
- While the shrimp are marinating, combine the rest of the ingredients. The chili pepper should be sliced in very thin rings, first removing the seeds if it seems too hot for your taste. Mix it with the cilantro, onion, garlic, and avocado. Add a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice and a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and toss with a fork to coat everything well. You can make this in advance, but not too far.
- When you’re ready to serve, arrange the salad greens on individual plates and dribble a little olive oil over them.
- Drain the shrimp, discarding the lime juice (there’ll be plenty left to give the ceviche some lime flavor), and toss with the other ingredients.
- Pile the ceviche on the salad plates and dribble a little olive oil over the top of each.
Angel Hair Pasta with Maine Shrimp
The technique of finishing the partially cooked pasta in the pan with the sauce is what Italian cooks call saltare in padella, to saute in the pan. The pasta should absorb directly some of the flavors of the sauce.
- Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pasta pot set over medium-high heat. While the water is coming to a boil, drain the shrimps in a colander and set aside.
- For the sauce, you’ll need to use a large saute pan or skillet with high sides in order to accommodate all the cooked pasta toward the end.
- Toss the leek slices with 2 tablespoons of oil in a saute pan like the one described and set over medium-low heat. Add the garlic, parsley, and a pinch of salt, and cook gently, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are soft but do not let them brown. Add the wine and continue cooking until the wine has reduced to just a few tablespoons.
- Now turn off the heat and immediately add the shrimp, stirring to mix them well. The heat in the pan will cook the shrimp until they’re almost ready to eat.
- Add a big spoonful of salt to the water in the pasta pot, which should be rapidly boiling by now. As soon as it returns to a boil, stir in the pasta and cook for just 3 minutes, then drain, reserving a little of the pasta water, and turn into the pan with the shrimp.
- Raise the heat to high and add a ladle full of pasta water to the pan. Let cook rapidly, until the liquid in the pan is almost evaporated–not more than a minute because you don’t want to overcook the shrimps. Add a pinch of ground red chili pepper and a couple of grinds of black pepper and turn the pasta into a warm bowl. Garnish with a dribble of oil and serve immediately.
Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, including “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean.”
Photos: Maine shrimp ceviche, at top. All photos by Nancy Harmon Jenkins.