We order our shrimp fried or grilled, boiled, poached or sautéed for New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp, that famous culinary misnomer.
These days, however, it’s also become easier to order different shrimp by species, sometimes even stacking up a few varieties of the Gulf’s prodigious catch on the same table. We’re not talking about all-shrimp tasting menus — at least not yet — but a greater appreciation for differences between types of shrimp and better access to them is opening new possibilities for chefs and local seafood lovers.
“A lot of people treat shrimp the way they used to treat Louisiana oysters, like they were all the same, a commodity,” said Ryan Prewitt, chef and partner at Pêche Seafood Grill in the Warehouse District. “But when you taste different shrimp you can see the differences in season, in where they came from. There’s a huge amount of variation you’re able to highlight.”
Prewitt’s kitchen has been doing just that, serving boiled shrimp caught in shallow waters along different parts of Louisiana’s coast, and also grilled royal red shrimp, a buttery, supple-bodied, coral-colored species brought in from deep waters off Alabama. At other New Orleans restaurants, diners are finding pink shrimp and even soft- shell shrimp, and dishes that would once be labeled as simply containing “shrimp” now frequently specify brown or white Gulf shrimp, according to the season.
“I’m pleasantly surprised to be seeing this, and there’s a lot more out there that people can do,” said Jerald Horst, a retired Louisiana fisheries professor and co-author of the Louisiana Seafood Bible book series. “Even brown shrimp isn’t just brown shrimp. Offshore brown shrimp and inshore brown shrimp taste very different. When you go to a restaurant do you order the house wine, or do you order by varietal? It’s the same idea.”
The increased variety locally comes at a time when shrimp is under some re-evaluation nationally. Most wild American shrimp come from the Gulf of Mexico, and Louisiana’s vast wetlands coast serves as the nursery for much of this harvest. But the domestic catch pales in comparison to the torrent of farm-raised shrimp the U.S. ships in from overseas, mostly from Asia and Latin America.
These imports make up 90 percent of U.S. shrimp consumption, and concerns are growing about the economic and environmental impact of such a huge preponderance of foreign shrimp on American plates.
In his latest book, “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood,” author and journalist Paul Greenberg argues for the “relocalization of seafood,” or sourcing closer to home, as an answer for these issues. He devotes a third of his book to the example of Gulf shrimp.
“We can have no more intimate relationship with our environment than to eat from it,” Greenberg wrote in a recent op-ed for the New York Times. “During the last century that intimacy has been lost, and with it our pathway to one of the most healthful American foods. It is our obligation to reclaim this intimacy.”
A selection of shrimp
In New Orleans, the growing attention to locality and seasonality of shrimp is one way to differentiate domestic product from commodity imports. It fits with the trend of chefs naming the ranch where their steaks started out or the farm that supplied the night’s greens, and shows the richness of resources in our own backyard (or waterway, in this case). For diners, the upshot is greater variety on the menu as well.
For instance, at his Uptown restaurant Dominique’s on Magazine, chef Dominique Macquet uses different types of shrimp for different preparations, often serving a few varieties of shrimp on the same menu. Lately, he’s been serving pink shrimp, a soft-textured, sweet-flavored shrimp caught around Florida. He roasts them with kaffir lime, dabs them with remoulade and plates them over whole basil leaves for a finger food-style wrap. He’s also making ceviche with royal red shrimp and leche de tigre, a lime juice marinade rippling with chile peppers and garlic.
“There’s a different texture and complexity to the (royal red) shrimp, it responds differently when you touch it with lime,” he said.
The new Lakeview restaurant Cava has made a seasonal specialty of soft-shell shrimp. Like the more familiar soft-shell crab, these are brown shrimp harvested during the animal’s molting process when the entire shell is easy to eat. They just don’t often find their way onto restaurant menus.
Cava proprietor Danny Millan first tasted them during a seafood foraging run to the fishing village of Lafitte. He stopped for lunch at Boutte’s Bayou Restaurant, a neighborhood joint on Bayou Barataria that regularly serves soft-shell shrimp. Millan was impressed and promptly tracked down the restaurant’s supplier, a fisherman docked just down the street.
But his chef de cuisine at Cava, Donovan Tullier, was familiar with them from growing up in Morgan City, a shrimping hub.
“It’s one if those things that you have to be close to the dock to get,” Tullier said. “They usually don’t make it far off the boat. The fishermen and their families keep them.”
He marinates them in Crystal hot sauce and fries the shrimp whole (sans head) before plating them over sliced tomato and mixed greens tossed with remoulade. Since the shrimp were taken while puffing up to grow into new shells, they taste plump and full, and the soft, edible shell encasing them adds a richer flavor.
At Pêche, Prewitt said he and co-chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski decided to make royal red shrimp part of their seafood-centric menu during research trips to restaurants farther east along the Gulf Coast, where they are more commonly found. Basin Seafood & Spirits, an Uptown restaurant that debuted about the same time as Pêche last year, is another spot serving royal red shrimp.
“What’s unique is you can grill them and they stay relatively easy to peel,” said Prewitt, who cooks them over his restaurant’s indoor wood-fired grill and finishes them simply with garlic butter and herbs.
“They’re softer, with a more buttery, sweeter taste,” he said. “They taste the way I always want lobster to taste but never does.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.
A selection of shrimp around New Orleans:
Basin Seafood Spirits
3222 Magazine St.
Look for: royal red shrimp
Boutte’s Bayou Restaurant
5134 Boutte St., Lafitte
Look for: soft-shell shrimp
789 Harrison Ave.
Look for: soft-shell shrimp
Dominique’s on Magazine
4213 Magazine St., (504) 891-9282; dominiquesonmag.com
Look for: pink shrimp, royal red shrimp
Pêche Seafood Grill
800 Magazine St.
Look for: royal red shrimp, a wide variety of white and brown shrimp