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When I was a kid growing up in rural Massachusetts, Memorial Day meant summer. Summer meant long vacations in Maine, and vacations in Maine meant long days clambering on rocky beaches and splashing in cool waters with my brothers, sister, and the seven-strong O'Brien clan. Long, dreamy nights almost always sealed these happy days around a fire on the O'Briens' beach where we would all gorge ourselves on lobster, corn on the cob, and clams. Some days, we'd tool around in our faithful Vista Cruiser station wagon and find one of the many roadside shacks serving up more of the same, with plenty of drawn "buttah" for generous dipping.
Back then, this budding epicurean and eventual chef thought I had tasted the best possible food on the planet, and didn't dare to dream that I would ever come close to that kind of taste and texture perfection ever again. Fresh Maine lobster and clams—all salty, sweet, and somewhere creamy—seemed (and still do) like some of God's finest food creations, incomparable to just about anything else.
Fortunately, the road that lay ahead has been a long and tasty one, seasoned with long stints in Paris and rural Southern France and many delicious meals along the way. Then, I arrived in Charleston, and that's when an entirely new food love affair began. Its name is "shrimp."
Spanking fresh shrimp from my friend Hugh's dockside fryer in Hollywood, SC
Lowcountry shrimp is like that Maine lobster, utterly delicious and unlike any other you'll find around the globe. Whether the spring and summer's white species or fall's brown species, they're coddled by the pluff mud bottoms, creeks, marshes, and tides that work in tandem to forge an impossibly distinct flavor that screams "Lowcountry." As far as I'm concerned, any other shrimp is an imposter.
I've had some darn good shrimp around these parts, but earlier this week, I was like that little kid in Maine all over again, beside myself with glee that I was savoring one of the best possible things to eat on the planet.
The setting and company probably had a lot to do with it. I was invited to join my friends Genny and Hugh on their creekside dock in Hollywood, SC for a fish fry. I'd been there before, so I knew what I was in for—lots of laughs, delicious, salt-air breezes, and wide-open vistas of sparkling water and swaying marshes that seem to go on forever until they reach the sea. On past occasions, too, Hugh has proved himself to be one heck of a great cook. The last time was a Lowcountry boil of crabs pulled up right from the dock, kielbasa, and corn, drained and poured out onto newspapers for all to enjoy.
This time, he outdid himself. The shrimp had been brought in that morning from a next-door neighbor's shrimp boat, netted from Lowcountry waters just a few miles from where we were sitting. Petite, pale pink jewels glimmered with freshness as he gave each a brief bath in buttermilk generously seasoned with black pepper and a bit of salt. After, each was tossed in the lightest cloak of seasoned flour. Then, the trick, as Hugh said, is to fry them in small batches (as in four or five) so the oil temperature stays consistent. The second trick, Hugh said, as he poured the first batch out onto a paper towel, is to eat them hot from the fryer.
That part, I assure you, was not too difficult. After the first batch, the air already smelled sweetly of shrimp, and our stomachs were rumbling. The first bite was the sweetest, yielding to the slightest, just right crunch of the flour crust and right into the heart of the matter—sweet, milky, briny Lowcountry shrimp. I think the three of us went through four or five batches before we even got to the catfish. With each bite, my gratitude for the glory of the Lowcountry and her shrimp bounty, as well as the blessing of good friends, grew. And so did my love for one of the world's most perfect foods—fresh, fried Lowcountry shrimp. And, no "buttah" needed.
Although nothing really beats the simple deliciousness of Hugh's fried shrimp, the following is a great, easy-to-prepare recipe from Southern Farmers Market Cookbook (Gibbs Smith, June 2009) by yours truly. It is an effortless and delicious shrimp-stuffed tomato delight—perfect for any Memorial Day or upcoming summer celebration as tomatoes start to come into peak season.
Tomatoes Stuffed with Orange-Basil Shrimp Salad
4 large, ripe tomatoes
4 cups raw, fresh Lowcountry shrimp, shells on
1 large shallot, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed orange juice
4 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
8 fresh basil leaves, cut into ribbon-like strips
1 table grated orange zest (optional)
Prepare the tomatoes for stuffing. Cut out the remains of the stem, leaving a trim, even "incision." Cut an X into the entire top. Fan the four sections open into a circle, to open up the tomato. Using a soup spoon, scoop out the excess flesh and seeds from the inside of the tomato, reserving for another use (as in a sauce, for example). Place the tomatoes on a plate and reserve.
Rinse the shrimp and drain in a colander. Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Add the shrimp and reduce to a simmer. Cook until uniformly pale pink in color, or until the shrimp start to float to the top, about 1-2 minutes; remove from the heat and drain. Rinse with cold water until cool. Shell and devein the shrimp; chop coarsely.
Place the shrimp in a large bowl with all of the remaining ingredients except the basil and zest and stir to combine. Scoop a fourth of the salad and place it in the center of each prepared tomato. Form the salad into an even, round mound. Put on plate garnished with fresh basil leaves and a sprinkle of grated orange zest. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Welcome to summer... or, at least, Memorial Day!
(Cover image from Road Food)
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