Shrimp dishes with humongous flavor

Daniel Neman
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Shrimp are special.

Not, of course, if you look at them — especially if they still have their heads. Then they’re kind of gross. I know one woman who refuses to eat them because, as she puts it, they look like “insects of the sea.”

Fine. More for the rest of us. And that’s good, because shrimp are special.

I decided to celebrate everything that is so wonderful about shrimp by using them to cook four dishes. I could have made more — far, far more — but I already had four pounds of shrimp to peel and devein.

And that’s as much fun as it sounds. I was saving a little money, but honestly it’s worth it to buy the peeled, easy-peel or already deveined varieties. Especially if you’re cooking four pounds of it.

The shrimp I bought, incidentally, was frozen. In the middle of the country, shrimp are almost always going to be frozen. Even if you go to a store and they have a lovely selection of clearly unfrozen shrimp sitting in a refrigerated cooler on ice, they were still frozen at one point.

And while frozen food is almost never as good as fresh, shrimp is one of the very few exceptions. Shrimp is flash-frozen when it is caught or farmed, sometimes right on board the boat, and it loses very little of its flavor. To defrost it, just leave it in the refrigerator overnight or take it out of the bag and run cold water over it for five minutes.

With my quickly frozen, easily thawed shrimp in hand, I first made Shrimp and Avocado Quesadillas.

If you’re already picturing how good that tastes, you’re wrong — because these also come with a liberal sprinkling of tarragon. So that’s shrimp (which goes great with tarragon) and avocado (which apparently goes great with tarragon) and tarragon (which goes great with shrimp and avocado) and some nicely melted cheese between two flour tortillas.

And sour cream, which is spread on one of the tortillas. With just the right amount of richness, it brings the whole thing together, like the mayonnaise on a BLT.

Try one, and your life might never quite be the same again.

Much the same can be said about Shrimp with Sweet Vermouth, which is far more elegant but no less delicious. If you’ll want to serve the quesadillas to your very best friends, then this is a dish you’ll want to serve to people you want to impress. And with only seven ingredients, plus salt and pepper, it’s easy to make.

The shrimp part is impressive enough, being shrimp, but what really makes this dish soar is the sauce. When you mix cream together with sweet vermouth, you get a sauce for the gods. And this version is especially stunning because it addresses the problem of richness by mixing in a bit of red wine vinegar and minced scallions.

It is a masterpiece of balance and flavor.

The third dish is of my own design, something I created a few months ago out of what we had in the house. I call it Fennel-Lemon Shrimp, and I (humbly) think it is a delightful blend of big flavors.

A thinly sliced fennel bulb — some stores call it anise — provides just a hint of a licorice taste; certainly not enough to discourage people who, like me, generally dislike licorice. Soy sauce, garlic and ginger edge the dish toward Asia, but a handful of small tomatoes brings it back to the New World. And everything is tied together with lemon, both in lemon juice and preserved lemons.

Intensely flavored, preserved lemons are among those things I keep in the fridge that most people probably don’t have. It used to be available at some specialty stores, and you may still be able to find it at international markets. I make my own and keep it for the right occasion, which often involves shrimp or chicken.

If you don’t happen to have them on hand, you can certainly leave them out.

For my last shrimp dish, I made fried shrimp. But they were not ordinary fried shrimp. These were Beijing Shrimp, which are apparently popular in northern China.

American fried shrimp have a clean, bright taste. But Beijing Shrimp are earthier and more complex. They are not necessarily better, but they have more going on.

The differences are few, but significant. Some American shrimp recipes use bread crumbs, but Beijing Shrimp uses bread crumbs that have been toasted, providing a rounder, nuttier flavor. And also, the egg that helps the bread crumbs adhere is mixed with sesame oil and white pepper, punching up the umami taste.

The dipping sauce that is served with it takes no time at all. You just mix a little sesame oil into hoisin sauce, and you have a thick, lightly sweet sauce to bring out the best in your shrimp.

Shrimp With Sweet Vermouth

Yield: 6 servings

4 tablespoons butter, divided

11/2 pounds medium-size shrimp, shelled and deveined

Salt and black pepper, to taste

1/3 cup sweet vermouth (or dry vermouth, if desired)

1/2 cup chopped scallions

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/3 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over high heat in a large frying pan. Add the shrimp and salt and pepper and cook, stirring, for 1 minute or less. The shrimp should lose their raw look. Add the vermouth and cook for 15 seconds. Drain the shrimp and reserve the cooking liquid.

Combine the scallions and vinegar in a separate saucepan. Add the cooking liquid from the shrimp and bring to a boil. Reduce over high heat to 1/4 cup. Add the cream, return to a boil and swirl in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Add the parsley and shrimp (which will finish cooking), and serve immediately with rice or buttered noodles.

Per serving: 186 calories; 13 g fat; 8 g saturated fat; 161 mg cholesterol; 16 g protein; 1 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; no fiber; 487 mg sodium; 68 mg calcium

From “The Seafood Cookbook,” by Pierre Franey and Bryan Miller

Beijing Shrimp

Yield: 4 servings

1 pound shrimp

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 egg

3 teaspoons sesame oil, divided

Salt and white pepper

Oil, for frying

13/4 cups hoisin sauce

If required, peel the shrimp, leaving the tail shell on if you can. Using a sharp knife, split each shrimp lengthwise along the inside of the curve, but leave it still attached at the back. Open the shrimp out so it splays out flat in a butterfly shape, and remove the fine digestive cord if necessary. Rinse the shrimp and pat dry with paper towels.

Heat a small, dry skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bread crumbs and cook, tossing or stirring frequently, until they turn a light brown. Immediately transfer to a plate to cool.

Spread out the flour and bread crumbs on separate plates. Beat the egg in a small bowl; then add 2 teaspoons of the sesame oil, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon white pepper. Mix well.

Heat the oil to 350 to 375 degrees in a wok or a deep skillet. Dip the shrimp into the flour, then into the egg mixture, then into the bread crumbs. Working in small batches so as not to overcrowd the skillet, shallow-fry the shrimp until golden brown, about 1 minute. Drain on paper towels. In a small dish, mix together the hoisin sauce and the remaining 1 teaspoon sesame oil, and serve as a dipping sauce.

Per serving: 375 calories; 8 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 231 mg cholesterol; 29 g protein; 48 g carbohydrate; 18 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 1,216 mg sodium; 110 mg calcium

Recipe from “Complete Chinese Cookbook,” by Ken Hom

Shrimp and Avocado Quesadilla

Yield: 1 serving

1 teaspoon olive oil

2 flour tortillas

1/3 to 1/2 cup diced cooked shrimp

1/2 cup avocado, diced

3 tablespoons shredded cheese, such as a combination of Monterey jack and cheddar

1 teaspoon fresh tarragon

1 tablespoon sour cream

Salsa, optional

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil, and place 1 tortilla in the oil. Remove it quickly and set aside. Add the second tortilla to the pan and sprinkle the shrimp, avocado, cheese and tarragon on it. Spread the sour cream on the other tortilla and place it oiled-side up on top of the other tortilla. Press down with a spatula. Cook for 1 minute.

Flip the tortillas, press down again, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes longer, or until the cheese melts. Cut into quarters and serve immediately with optional salsa.

Per serving: 758 calories; 38 g fat; 10 g saturated fat; 234 mg cholesterol; 22 g protein; 64 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 8 g fiber; 1,295 mg sodium; 507 mg calcium

Recipe from “The New Legal Sea Food’s Cookbook,” by Roger Berkowitz and Jane Doerfer

Fennel-Lemon Shrimp

Note: Preserved lemons can be purchased in a jar at some specialty stores, or you can easily make them yourself with the recipe below.

Yield: 4 servings

1 pound shrimp

2 tablespoons olive oil

3/4 cup fennel bulb, thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

3/4 teaspoon minced ginger

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1/2 lemon, juiced

4 cocktail tomatoes or 12 cherry tomatoes

1/2 preserved lemon, skin only, rinsed and chopped, optional, see note

Peel and devein the shrimp. Set aside.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add fennel and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and ginger, and saute 30 seconds. Add soy sauce, lemon juice and tomatoes; stir briefly until mixed. Add optional preserved lemon pieces and shrimp. Cook until shrimp are pink and have curled; about 5 minutes, but time depends on size of shrimp. Serve over rice.

Per serving: 175 calories; 8 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 183 mg cholesterol; 24 g protein; 4 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 366 mg sodium; 88 mg calcium

Recipe by Daniel Neman

Preserved Lemons

Note: Smaller lemons are best for this recipe, and Meyer lemons, in season, are ideal. I fit 10 Meyer lemons into a 38-ounce jar.

Yield: varies

Lemons (see note)

Salt, preferably coarse

1 bay leaf, optional

1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds, optional

1 dried chili, optional

1 cinnamon stick, optional

Wash lemons. Cut off the stem, if attached. Slice lengthwise from the other end of the lemon, stopping about 1-inch from the bottom; then make another downward slice, so you’ve incised the lemon with an X shape.

Pack coarse salt into the lemon where you made the incisions. Don’t be skimpy with the salt: use about 1 tablespoon per lemon.

Put the salt-filled lemons in a clean, large glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add a few coriander seeds, a bay leaf, a dried chili and a cinnamon stick if you want, or a combination of any of them. Press the lemons very firmly in the jar to get the juices flowing. Cover and let stand overnight.

The next day do the same, pressing the lemons down, encouraging them to release more juice as they start to soften. Repeat for 2 to 3 days until the lemons are completely covered with liquid. If necessary, add freshly squeezed lemon juice to cover them completely.

Store for 1 month, until the preserved lemons are soft. At this point they are ready to be used. Use or keep preserved lemons in the refrigerator for at least 6 months. Rinse before using to remove excess salt.

To use, remove lemons from the liquid and rinse. Split in half and scrape out the pulp. Slice the lemon peels into thin strips or cut into small dices. You may wish to press the pulp through a sieve to obtain the juice, which can be used for flavoring as well. Discard the pulp.

Recipe from David Lebovitz