Just days away from Christmas Eve, I have been thinking about what seven fishes I should make for our traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner. Being that both of my parents grew up near the Gulf of Naples in Italy (my dad from Monte di Procida on the mainland and my mom on the Island of Ischia) fish was a focal part of many meals. My mom came from a long line of prominent fishermen. Her uncles and grandfather were tall strapping men who made fishing their living. While my dad’s family on the other hand, made their living farming. Fishing was just a favorite past time, a perk of living just a mile from the sea. Because of my family’s passion for salt water fishing, my siblings and I spent a major part of our summers fishing on the Long Island Sound. So needless to say, getting fish for our Christmas Eve dinner was always an adventure for choosing the freshest and tastiest fish. All this passion for fish also resonated into our restaurant menu. Our restaurant was one of the first restaurants in the Hudson Valley to introduce calamari to their clientele. For this month’s recipe I thought I would give you our Shrimp Marinara recipe. It’s a simple recipe using our authentic marinara sauce that we used in the restaurant, the 825 MAIN Marinara Sauce. As a recurring theme with all of my recipe,s the attention to all the ingredients is what sets us apart from the rest. To make this Shrimp Marinara truly special and mouth watering, I would like to share my knowledge from my family’s passion for seafood. There is so much to know when choosing your shrimp for this recipe!
There are dozens of different species of shrimp. Shrimp are available with the heads and tails on or off, with the shell on or cleaned, and deveined or intact. One can choose from pre-cooked, frozen, fresh, or previously frozen. And then one has to wonder whether to buy shrimp or prawns.
I have included some information to help you decide on some of the following questions:
1.What size shrimp to get?
A shrimp’s size is measured by the number of individual shrimp it takes to make up a pound. A label of 16/20 means that there are between 16 and 20 of these shrimp in a pound.
The smaller the number, the bigger the shrimp. These labels like “medium” or “jumbo” aren’t regulated and vary depending on the fish monger. Here’s a general guide when picking shrimp for a recipe.Small – 51 shrimp or more per pound
Medium – 36 to 50 shrimp per pound
Large – 26 to 40 shrimp per pound
Jumbo – 16 to 25 shrimp per pound
Colossal – Fewer than 15 shrimp per pound
2. What types of shrimp are there to choose from?
By color: When one thinks of shrimp you think about the color like brown, white, or pink shrimp.
Brown shrimp mostly come from the Gulf of Mexico, though they’re found down the entire Atlantic coast. They like it warm, so they’re found in shallow waters, and tend to be fairly small with a purple-ish coloring on the tail. Firm in texture, their flavor isn’t the strongest, though they’re thought to have a distinctive mineral-y iodine shrimp flavor.
White shrimp tend to be a little more tender and sweet. With a slightly lighter color and a green-hued tail, they’re found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts in shallow, muddy waters. There’s also a good number of white shrimp imported from Latin America—especially Mexico and Ecuador—Thailand, and China, all with varying levels of sustainability ratings (see the seafood watch reports for more details.)
Pink shrimp are some of the tastiest shrimp you can find, mild and sweet without the distinctive ammonia taste some of the brown and white shrimp have. Just don’t expect a vibrantly hued patch of shrimp at the market—pink shrimp can range from white to gray in color. You can recognize them by dark blue coloring on the tail; they usually also sport a spot on either side of the body, about three quarters of the way to the tail.
By name: Tiger shrimp, Spot Prawn, Rock Shrimp
Tiger Shrimp are found mostly in Asia, especially in Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, and China, tiger shrimp have telltale brown striping on their bodies. They can get enormous in size, up to a foot long, and are the most commonly farmed shrimp in the world. Formed or fresh, they can have a distinctly shrimp flavor, you’ll frequently find them frozen in five-pound blocks in Asian markets. These shrimp have a soft texture.
Spot Prawn– Prawn is a word generally used, among English-speakers, in the UK, Europe, and Australia, while the word “shrimp” is more common in North America. Some people may have the mistaken impression that a prawn is necessarily a bigger creature than a shrimp (possibly due to the other meaning of the word shrimp). In reality, there’s no difference between the two words. Yet for whatever reason, even in the US, the spot prawn is always referred to as a prawn and not a shrimp. It’s found along the Pacific coast from Alaska down to Mexico, and is a delicacy in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. A fairly large shrimp, at up to a foot long, spot prawns are prized for their sweetness and tenderness.
Rock shrimp are deepwater inhabitants, growing tough and hardy in the cold waters off the Atlantic coast from Virginia down to the Gulf. A few species also live off the Pacific coast. They don’t look at all like their warm water cousins, boasting a very hard (dare I say rock-like) shell and segmented flesh that looks more like a lobster tail than anything else. It tastes, not surprisingly, kind of like lobster, more firm than other varieties of shrimp, but also sweeter. It’s excellent in preparations that typically call for lobster, and a whole lot cheaper to boot. It’s pretty much impossible to remove that tough shell without a dedicated machine, so it’s usually sold pre-peeled.
3. How do you know if they are fresh?
Shrimp are highly perishable, so it’s important to know how to pick out the freshest shrimp available, not just for taste and texture but also for safety. First off, you don’t want any shrimp that smell like ammonia—this is a telltale sign of spoilage, and it’s worth asking your fishmonger if you can take a sniff before buying. You’ll also want to avoid shrimp that are limp, slimy, or falling apart, all of which are signs of decay.
A more advanced sign if you’re buying head-on fresh shrimp: look for black spots on the head first, then the body.
In most cases, you’re better off buying frozen shrimp, even when “fresh” shrimp are available.
4. Do you get fresh or frozen?
Most shrimp sold in the supermarket or at the fishmonger were deep frozen at sea and delivered to the retailer in that state. That display of “fresh” shrimp you see are just the same bags of frozen shrimp you find in the freezer that have simply been allowed to thaw out in the store before going on display. There’s no way to know how long they’ve been there defrosted, so you’re better off buying the frozen shrimp and defrosting them yourself at home where you have more control over the process and can guarantee that your shrimp don’t spend too long out of the freezer before being cooked. You can also ask the fishmonger for a box of shrimp.
The one exception to the always-buy-frozen rule is when you have access to live shrimp, either fresh from the ocean, or stored in tanks at the shop. In those cases, cook the shrimp as soon as possible after purchasing for best flavor and texture.
5. Block or IQF?
Shrimp tend to be frozen either in large five-pound blocks or by using the IQF (Individually Quick Frozen) method. We recommend opting for the second. IQF shrimp tend to show less damage during freezing. They also make it easy to thaw only the shrimp you need for a single meal at a time.
If you’re buying from a grocery store freezer, take a peek in the little transparent plastic to make sure there is no freezer burn. Freezer burn indicates that the shrimp have either partially thawed before being refrozen, or have been poorly handled during their freeze, both of which are bad for texture and flavor.
6. How do you thaw frozen shrimp?
Frozen shrimp should always be thawed before cooking. To thaw frozen shrimp take them out of their bag and place them in a bowl under cold (not warm) running water. They’ll be good to go in just a few minutes. Dry your shrimp on paper towels before proceeding with your recipe.
7. Do you get them with shells?
I recommend shell-on shrimp. Shelled shrimp are often mangled and unappetizing. Shell-on shrimp also tend to be much cheaper. Finally, those shells pack a sweet, flavorful punch, whether you grill the shrimp directly in the shell, or use the shells to add flavor to the final dish like in this Spanish-style shrimp.
EZ-peel shrimp are already split and deveined—you’ll be able to hold onto those flavorful shells and they’ll make your job that much easier. And they are much more expensive. If you’re making something where the shrimp’s appearance doesn’t matter—dumplings, for instance—go for it. But if you want a good looking array for something like shrimp cocktail, you’ll probably want to peel ’em yourself. In either case, be sure to hold onto your shells: they can be simmered with aromatics to make a flavorful seafood stock, sauce, or oil.
8. Does one devein or not?
The “vein” of a shrimp is actually its digestive tract, typically a thin, dark line aka shrimp poop. It’s not bad if you eat it, but it could be sandy and bitter and it’s easy enough to get rid of it. There are a few methods to devein a shrimp. The first and easiest is to just ask your fishmonger to do it. No tools are required for this method.
But it’s pretty easy to do it yourself, as well. You can, with a paring knife, make a shallow incision right through the shell on the shrimp’s back, from its head to its tail, and then pick out the vein.
9. What about choosing Pre-Cooked Shrimp?
“Pre-cooked” shrimp are usually “overcooked” shrimp. They’re rubbery and bland, and since they’re already cooked, offer no room for flavor improvement and will end up dry when added to dishes. I say don’t bother!
10. Do we check for additives?
Shrimp are occasionally treated with chemical additives designed to increase their thawed shelf life or to get them to suck up and retain excess moisture so that they can be sold as larger shrimp. Check your label and make sure that it lists only “Shrimp” before purchasing.
See our Shrimp Marina recipe.