David Leite is the publisher of the website Leite’s Culinaria and author of The New Portuguese Table, which won the 2010 IACP First Book/Julia Child Award. David provides occasional posts for CHEFS in which he shares his experience about everything from champagne to Welsh food to high tea to being a super taster for publications including the New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, The Washington Post, and others. His website, which he created in 1999, is a two-time James Beard Award-winning site.
On the tiny artists’ island of Burano, near Venice, I was served that fateful first course of shrimp risotto. Put simply, it flat-out beguiled me. I set about recreating this achingly fresh dish as soon as I returned home. Many, many pounds of rice and shellfish later, I hit upon a rendition I believe comes close to its inspiration. I turn to it whenever I need a heaping helping of comfort food. But not childhood comfort (mac and cheese) or gluttonous comfort (mashed potatoes) or bored comfort (gelato in front of the TV), but rather elegant, dinner party-worthy comfort.
I’ve been making this shrimp risotto recipe now for 15 years, and each time I change it a little. This last time, though, I was terribly disappointed by the lack of shrimp flavor. It was the only time I’d used supermarket shrimp instead of shrimp I’d bought from my trusted fishmonger. Coincidence? I think not.
The moment I realized that the soul of this dish—the very essence of what I’d experienced in Burano—was so easily compromised, I knew that, sadly, there’s just no way around it. I hated to do it, but I knew I had to … buy special ingredients for this recipe. Those pasty hunchbacks of the seafood case—you know, those pathetic things that’ve been frozen and thawed and slashed in price—just don’t cut it.
Still, it took me a while to actually step up and hand over my credit card number. During my initial stage of denial, I went the frugal route and bought shrimp base, hoping I could jack up the shrimp flavor in the recipe with this simple fix. However, when mixed with water, it made a vile, nasty broth.
I then tried just about every combination of ingredients and concoctions I could think of in conjunction with supermarket shrimp. Nothing worked.
Finally, bereft of options that provided the full wallop of flavor I had in Italy, I purchased five pounds of individually quick frozen (IQF), head-on, extra-jumbo Gulf shrimp from CajunGrocer.com for about $50 (plus shipping). At my local fish market, that would have easily cost more than $100.
When the shipment arrived, smelling all clean and oceanic and nothing at all like those supermarket munchkins, I took out what I needed for the risotto and tossed the rest in the freezer. (There is scampi, gumbo, and potted shrimp in my future.) When cooked, the shrimp were so sweet, so buttery, I almost forgot about making the risotto. Not surprisingly, the heads and shells give the stock that same amazing flavor I’d experienced in Italy and, in the end, it was cheaper.
I’ve even done the math for you: 3 pounds of head-on extra-jumbo Gulf shrimp equals 1 1/2 pounds of headed, peeled, and deveined shrimp.
If after hearing all this, you feel it’s against your culinary religion to special order ingredients, I do understand. Scroll down to the variations below the recipe for some creative solutions for when circumstances conspire to give you not-so-stellar supermarket shrimp.
So you want to make your own shrimp stock but chances are you don’t want to—nor can you afford to—shell pound after pound of shrimp to obtain the necessary mountain of shrimp shells. We understand. So, that’s why it’s a good idea to make fast friends with the guys at your local seafood market.
After just a trip or two to the counter, summon your gumption, bat your eyelashes, and inquire if, perchance, there are ever any shrimp shells left over from the shelled shrimp sitting there so prettily on ice. Works like a charm. I can’t count the number of times I've gratefully accepted a ginormous bag of featherweight shrimp shells at no charge. A word to the wise: Always purchase a little something from the seafood counter—some plump sea scallops or a lovely flounder fillet—to show your appreciation. Just don’t count on this as a last-ditch, eleventh-hour solution, because often there simply are no shells to be had. I usually call ahead in the morning and ask if they’ll set the shrimp shells aside for me.
For the shrimp stock
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 pounds head-on, extra-jumbo Gulf shrimp
2 small carrots, peeled and diced
2 small onions, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 to 2 tablespoons tomato paste (optional; the version I had in Venice used it, but the risotto won’t suffer without it)
7 cups cold water
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the shrimp risotto
1 1/2 pound extra-jumbo shrimp reserved from the stock
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon minced shallot
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 cups high-quality imported risotto rice, such as Vialone Nano, Carnaroli, or Arborio
1/3 cup dry white wine
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper
You can certainly use shells from supermarket shrimp to make the stock, but you’ll need far more than those from 1 1/2 pounds shrimp to make an intensely flavored stock—if you’re not using shrimp heads. As you buy shell-on shrimp and peel them for prep in other recipes, stockpile the shells in the freezer. Keep doing this until you have more than you think you’ll ever possibly use. (Be sure to keep a running tally of how many pounds of shrimp you’ve shelled, whether you do so on the resealable plastic bag or somewhere in your kitchen. Shells from about 5 pounds of shrimp are a good start, although shells from 10ish pounds of shrimp are even better.) Proceed with the stock recipe above, keeping all other amounts exactly as they are. Don’t increase the amount of water.
Impatient? Not willing to—forgive me—shell out money to buy Gulf shrimp online? I get it. (I wasn’t, either. At first.) There is a quick-start stock you can make with the shells from 1 1/2 pounds of shrimp by jacking it up with clam juice. Make the stock using only 4 cups water. Once it’s finished, have a taste. Chances are it’ll be somewhat lackluster. Add a combination of water and clam juice until you have 7 cups of stock that has a distinctive shellfish flavor. Don’t salt the resulting risotto. The clam juice is plenty briny.
Categories: Food & Recipes