Nothing quite matches the flavor of freshly caught shrimp. They are infinitely better when cooked with their shells on or in precious liquids reduced from their shells, yet few people bother. I was tempted to include just one recipe for shrimp (the only one you really need to know), but will state it simply here as the guideline. It is the classic Edisto Island recipe, always told in Gullah, the dialect of the Sea Islands: Sree minute, off de hot, out de pot, dey ready.
Bring a pot of seasoned water to a boil. Add unpeeled shrimp. Do not let it come back to a boil. Count three minutes and remove the shrimp. Peel and eat. If the shrimp are to be used in another recipe, such as shrimp paste or pickled shrimp, season the water with salt only. If they are to be eaten plain, add some seafood boil. The important thing to remember is never to let the water return to a boil. The three minutes is the time for large (fewer than 25 per pound) shrimp; medium shrimp (35–45 count) need cook for only two minutes; small (more than 50-count), for one. If you are cooking more than two or three pounds, you may have to leave the shrimp in a little longer. They should be pink and firm, but still tender. Immediately pour them into a colander to drain. They will continue to cook after they are removed from the water; taste one. If it is the least bit rubbery, run cold water over the shrimp or plunge them into ice water to stop the cooking, but drain them immediately if you do, and sprinkle some more salt over them.
Old Charleston cookbooks call for a plate of shrimp, which means a pint of peeled shrimp, for dishes such as pilau and soup. When I have not been shrimping myself and am forced to buy shrimp, I always buy from small local vendors—or from the boats—who sell heads-on shrimp caught within the last twenty-four hours and untainted by dubious “preservatives.” In cities such as New York you can find fresh heads-on shrimp (I have found them in Chinatown and at Fulton Market in New York City) if you look hard enough, but they too may be coated with chemicals. Shrimp heads rot and fall off very quickly, but when fresh they hold nearly all of the flavor. If you don’t live in the Lowcountry or in a coastal area where you can get to the shrimp as soon as they come to shore, you may be better off buying “fresh frozen” shrimp, which are immediately headed and flash-frozen aboard the shrimp trawler so that they may be shipped. If you are simply boiling or sautéing the shrimp, give everyone an extra napkin or a finger bowl and cook them with their shells on. And if the shrimp are to be incorporated into another dish—such as Shrimp Pilau—make a stock out of the shells.
Sandlappers tend to stand at the tables and open raw oysters for an hour before eating steamed ones. They are best when just heated through, so that they open more easily than the raw ones, without having lost their tangy juice. A serious oyster eater can devour a bushel; I get a bushel of oysters for every five people invited. No matter how few guests there are, a keg of beer is always a wise addition. Standard kegs hold 240 eight-ounce cups. At outdoor parties people will drink. In the Lowcountry, with its three-hundred-year history of heavy imbibing, you must count on four beers plus one glass of wine per person.
© 1992 All rights reserved. Published by UNC Press.