Shrimp cocktail is the hamburger of the seafood world; it is served with ketchup and almost universally snubbed by the sort of people who consider themselves “gastronomes.” For the rest of us, however, shrimp cocktail is a true American classic that is easy to like and easy to make.
Shrimp cocktail can be one of the most joyful dishes in the world. A beautifully cooked shrimp has a sassy snap and a clean, smooth, nearly fruity flavor. And this is food that you eat with your fingers, dipping it into a sweet, spicy bright red sauce that will turn anyone into an instant child.
Cook the shrimp wrong, however, and the joy vanishes. What you end up with is something tough, tasteless and rubbery. Here’s how to do it right.
1. Buy good shrimp. Most shrimp are farmed, and farmed badly. What you’re looking for are wild caught American shrimp, and you want them in the shell. Huge “jumbo” shrimp are nice, but I actually like the smaller “large” shrimp—they cook evenly, have good flavor and are much more affordable.
2.Buy and cook your shrimp in their shells; this gives them a huge flavor jolt. (Shrimp shells are filled with flavor; they make excellent stock on their own.)
3.Use enough salt. Almost everyone knows that salting meat is important. Too many of us forget that salting shrimp is equally important; even the best shrimp will seem dull when boiled in undersalted water.
4. Flavor the cooking broth. You can add lemon, bay leaves, celery, wine..... Each will impart a new level of flavor, especially if you leave the shrimp to steep in the broth as they chill.
5. Don’t overcook the shrimp. I’ll say it again: don’t overcook the shrimp. They cook with remarkable speed.
6. Make your own cocktail sauce. And use freshly grated horseradish for a pungency that’s sweet.
Buy a pound of large (26-30 per pound) shrimp in the shell. I don’t generally bother removing the vein that runs down the back, but it can look unsightly in a naked shrimp, so for shrimp cocktail I’ll cut the back of the shell with a small scissors and pry out the vein. Rinse the shrimp well.
Bring 5 cups of water to boil with a half tablespoon of salt and whatever aromatics you happen to have on hand. I generally use celery, parsley, a quartered lemon, a chopped shallot (or half an onion), a couple of peppercorns and a bay leaf. If you have some white wine or vermouth hanging about, throw a few good splashes of that in too. When it reaches a boil, turn the heat down and simmer, uncovered for about 15 minutes. It will make your kitchen smell delicious.
Bring the flavored water back to a boil, taste again for salt (it should be pronounced, but not unpleasant) and throw in your shrimp. Immediately turn off the heat and allow the shrimp to cook for about 2 minutes. Test them; a cooked shrimp will be opaque all the way through and feel just firm. They’ll cook more evenly if you turn them once or twice in the water.
Remove the shrimp to a large plate and put it in the refrigerator to stop the cooking. Allow the broth to cool, then put that in the refrigerator too. When it’s chilled, throw the shrimp into the broth where they will soak up all those fine herbal flavors. Peel the shrimp just before serving.
All-American Cocktail Sauce
Stir 3 tablespoons of freshly grated horseradish into a half cup of ketchup. Add a dash of Tabasco and a healthy squeeze of lemon juice. You might want to add a splash of Worcestershire or soy sauce to the mix too. Keep tasting and adjusting until you’re sure it will make a happy marriage with the shrimp.