Food / Good Life

A Mountain Man’s Guide to a Shrimp Boil

980634_10201143542092747_1069571234_oThe back of my neck and hands are red and burning, there are multiple layers of sunscreen in the creases of my ears, nose and into my hair that is wild and greasy. It got to where we never saw a point in showering proper because in an hour or so we’d be covered in shrimp juice. It seems the best way to know that it is summer time is the first Low Country Boil. It’s not because we calendar to have one, despite longing to dip into a pile all winter. There is an amalgamation of outliers that seems to fall into place. Magically these tend to occur around Memorial Day and extend into August when it’s hot, there is plenty of margin to drink cold beer, you are with friends and family, have time on your hands. But the outliers are there, you have good shrimp, big-ass shrimp that you saw come off the dock and corn, fresh and local, sold roadside under tents and off truck beds. The shrimp boils my family put together have evolved over several decades. Probably first appreciated at big events put on by transplants to our town (250 miles inland) from “Down East” in North Carolina and up from the South Carolina “Low Country”. My dad was impressed by Little Washington native, Dr. Bill Quarles’s, Frogmore Stew. The boys from Charleston had Low Country Boils when I went to visit- once I was called Mountain Man there in a derogatory fashion. My fine friends from Morehead City, which I have had many cherished occasion to fish with, simply call it “Dump”. My father is a perfectionist. He wrote down old Dr. Bill’s recipe and I’ve watched him stand over the pot with an egg timer, meticulously waiting to drop the next ingredient. As I got a bit older and culinarily inclined, he could be a bit “elbows out” and testy about being the Captain of the Pot. Right about the time (I believe) he was learning to appreciate some of the more complex flavor in my method, I dumped the still boiling water into his newly sodded lawn and set myself back about another decade in taking the helm. I’ve been to Shrimp Boils in a seersucker suit. I been around tables where the ladies have on dresses and the men have embrocated their flesh with Old Spice and Royall Lyme. I have been to boils that had long decorated tables and nearly a hundred seated guests. I have seen a catering company sorta cook it at a wedding.  I have been to boils that have plates. I have attempted a boil in February with frozen corn and grocery store shrimp from Lord knows where. I have boiled Shrimp and picked at piles cooked by others hundreds of times now. Through them all I’ve learned some things- the food has to be fresh and local, the fellowship has to be real, and the cooks need to be part of the eating. I’d like to share my Low Country Boil with you. I’d shutter to call it a recipe. It is a recipe inside of an experience. I will tell you that I like to cook for eight to twenty people. I don’t believe in anything more than eating with hands off of a long table. (“No Mom, you can not make a salad- that requires a plate and a fork and cleaning the kitchen. But, we would be happy for you to bring down some warm French Bread.”) Clean up basically requires a hose and a trash can. Here are the things you need: A sharp knife, a big pot with a strainer and a heat source, a skillet, a great place to dump the meal that plenty of folks can gather around, a large cooler full of beer, wine and other drinks. You’ll need a couple of kitchen towels and a few rolls of paper ones. As for ingredients, the shrimp* has to be large, local, and fresh never frozen. I prefer a good handful of them still have their heads on. You’ll need four or five large lemons. Racquet ball sized Red Potatoes, Fresh and Local Sweet Corn (I like Silver Queen). You need butter- don’t skimp, get the good stuff. You’ll need three Vidalia Onions, a few stalks of celery, some hot peppers, and a few pounds of Andouille Sausage. Personally, I try really hard to find a butcher that can make nice hot sausage with dry casings. You need to grab a couple of Louisiana or Zataran’s Boil-in Bags, Tabasco, Old Bay and the stuff to make a killer Cocktail Sauce (see below). *Despite not being in Maryland or Virginia, I’m not afraid to chuck a crab or two in the pot, it always seems like there is always a few around that folks bring in the boat at the coast- as long as nobody’s going to fight over it. Timing, as I learned from my Dad, is critical. Overcooked corn isn’t any good, not to mention that it gets cold fast, so your guests need to know the ETA! Overcooked Shrimp is a sin. I’ve found that potatoes have strong heat momentum that continues to cook shrimp in the pile so I’ve changed up a few things to let them cool out and not sit over all the shrimp on the table, turning it to mush. An hour before dump-thirty, I open a beer and start boiling water. I put in enough water to cover the potatoes. You can’t always get the perfect sized potato, so I figure a fist sized portion per guest. I put a cup of vinegar and a can of beer in the water, along with the boil-bags, a quarter cup of Old Bay, a few quartered lemons, and a good shot of sea salt. I take a good hand full of shrimp, preferably head on for the cholesterol, along with a few bay leaves and put them in a sachet in the water- just the get the stock nice and fishy. Now here is where I deviate from tradition a bit. I believe that a few of the ingredients need to caramelize a little before going in the pot. I get a big cast iron skillet going on the side and put the cut sausage (a fistful per guest) in to brown out. Once the Andouille is sizzling and browning and the pan in getting greasy with little caramel flakes, I put the sausage aside in some foil and sauté a few veggies in it’s grease. I quarter the onions and move them around till they are opaque and the steam above them begins to smell sweet, then I chuck them in the pot. I sauté diced celery and julienned sweet and hot peppers (I like Cubanelles and Fresnoes, but anything hot and sweet from the garden works). I work them around the brown bits, add a few garlic cloves, then I chuck them in the pot. I deglaze all the little brown bits with some beer, and a pour it in the pot. Once the potatoes are getting soft, especially if they are bigger ones- I like to pull them up out of the water and cover them with foil on the table to cool to just over eating temperature. This also buys some time if somebody is still in the shower, still out in the boat, putting the baby to bed, not “here” yet. When everyone is settled in, has a drink in their hand and hungry then I go to the corn. I like to break the cobs in half. I make sure to boiling stock is back to a full roar and drop in the corn for a seven minute boil. I put the sausage in boil at this time too. I am not going to tell anyone how long to boil shrimp. There is a romance that is danced in seconds, no one should hold on to my words, but for those special, larger- 20/30 per pound shrimp, I go just shy of four minutes, much shorter (like 2 minutes for the smaller and more common 40 counts). The moment and not a moment later the shrimp is done, I pull it and dump it over with the corn in the middle of the tableover the bed of hot potatoes. Before ringing the dinner bell and folks start grabbing, I pull shrimp out of the hot spots, out from underneath the corn and get a little presentation and distribution straight. I like to dump drawn Kerrygold butter with Old Bay and lemon juice in it over everything (liberally). Here is the cocktail sauce: Grate a fresh Horseradish root and soak it over night in cider vinegar. Drain the vinegar and mix in good ketchup until the proportions look right. Dash in Worcestershire, squeeze a little lemon, dash some Tabasco and give it a whirl. Hose it off. I have found that there is rarely left over shrimp sausage of corn. The potatoes make an incredible hash brown the next day. _MG_2519_MG_2531

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