When the ground has long since frozen solid, here in Maine we still have our ocean harvest. And this time of year the most rewarding prize is the tiny pink shrimp. Strangely, I got to know the Maine shrimp best when I was at the well-known East Coast Grill in Cambridge, MA. People took food knowledge seriously at ECG, and before each shift we joined for a family meal and a quiz about the dishes we were offering that day. While the tried and true menu was excellent, we always fawned over new dishes, and the Maine shrimp seemed to garner the most excitement each year.
“Sweeties” as they were called at ECG were often boiled, shell-on, in a sinful bath of old bay and Narragansset beer, sometimes topped with crumbly cornbread croutons. This is how I learned that Maine shrimp are just as delicious, albeit crunchier, with their exoskeletons left intact. But my favorite, and a dish we would sell out of almost immediately, was the “Sweetie Poke.” Get your mind out of the gutter – poke is Hawaiian preparation, a kind of seafood tartare or limeless ceviche, that incorporates sambal olek (a chili-based sauce), salt, and seaweed with raw fish (or, in this case, shrimp).
Understanding that fresh Maine shrimp were not only safe to eat raw, they were arguably better, changed my notion of how they could be prepared. The delicate texture and flavor of Maine shrimp benefit from a light touch – and as little cooking as is possible. In my own kitchen, I came up with a simple risotto that I think provides a good foundation for the star ingredient. I often wonder when inventing a dish that is Italian at its roots, whether or not the grandmothers of Italy would approve. Having cooked in a few different Italian kitchens, I’m acutely aware of their rules. And Italians do not like to break rules of the kitchen. I’ll list the recipe below, but first a couple of rules – some of which I break, and others that I honor.
Never pair cheese with seafood.
It isn’t risotto if you didn’t stir it continuously.
Always stir in one direction.
It also isn’t risotto if you added your liquid all at once.
I abide by all of the above rules except one: Always stir in one direction. It’s never made sense to me, and anyway, this is cooking, not the DMV. In regard to those I obey, cheese and seafood don’t really do much to complement one another, but rather compete for the spotlight; and the creamy texture of a good risotto is product of a faithful cook who is willing to stand above a steamy pot, stirring and adding broth slowly as it is saturates the rice. Not such a bad job on a chilly winter night.
My take on risotto gamberetti
Heat up six cups of good broth; I usually use chicken, but vegetable, seafood, or a mix of any of the three will work. In the meantime, put on your ski goggles and dice about a half a cup of white or yellow onion, or a fresh leek or two works nicely as well. Use a microplaner, or something like it, to finely grate about two tablespoons of lemon rind (keep separate from the onion or leek). Chop a few tablespoons of parsley as well; add to the lemon rind and set aside for later.
Give your cleaned shrimp a rinse in a strainer (tight mesh if possible) that can fit into your broth pan – you are going to give them a quick steam using the broth so as not to waste any flavor. When you see the shrimp begin to change color, remove the strainer and set the shrimp aside. I usually give them about one minute in the hot broth.
Once you have prepped your shrimp, cut the onions, and your broth is hot, you are ready to start stirring. You’ll need some dry white wine handy for cooking and drinking. First, add three tablespoons of butter to a stockpot, and melt over medium heat. Once melted, add your onion and cook until translucent. Now you are ready to add two cups of good quality Arborio rice. Stir the rice into the butter-onion mixture and cook for a minute or two.
Next, add a half a cup of your white wine, stir and cook until evaporated (this will only take about a minute). Add a cup of warmed broth to your rice and get stirring, but at a leisurely pace. The goal is to slowly simmer the rice while stirring, adding about a cup of broth at a time when the rice has effectively soaked up what was in the pot. Timing will depend partially on your rice, but you don’t want this to be happening too quickly, so adjust your burner as necessary. Basically what you are after is a nice, calm simmer.
The stirring part should take somewhere in the ballpark of 25 minutes; you want your rice to be fairly firm (think of the quality of al dente pasta) but it should not be chalky or hard. If you boil off all of your broth but the rice is still too hard, use water to fully cook the grain using the same stirring method (adding more broth will make your dish too salty). I usually have some warm water in a teapot ready just in case.
Once you feel your rice is almost done, add about one cup of peas (frozen is fine!) and salt and pepper to taste. Finally, once the peas are heated through, turn off the burner and add your grated lemon zest first, followed by the reserved shrimp. Mix everything thoroughly, but gently.
That’s it! Now you are ready to enjoy your fresh Maine shrimp risotto.