Shrimp cocktail is a many-splendored thing. Popularized stateside during the Prohibition era (what better to fill unused cocktail glasses with than shellfish?), seafood cocktails evoke images of high-class soirees (either that or they're, as Nigel Slater suggests, "laughably passé").
Well, food fashions may come and go, but we're in Camp Shrimp Cocktail Is Always in Style. What better dish is there for entertaining, especially in the summer? It's easy to make, beautiful to present and all but guaranteed to elicit rapid fluttery hand motions from guests who are just so charmed by the classiness of your decision to serve crustaceans in a glass.
If, for some highly unfortunate reason, your impression of a shrimp cocktail involves rubbery meat and gunky cocktail sauce, fear not. There are a few key pieces of information to bear in mind when preparing the dish, Pêche chef/partner Ryan Prewitt, who knows a thing or two about shrimp, says.
Even if you don't have the luxury of fresh Gulf shrimp year-round, as the New Orleans-based chef does, he implores you to buy the highest-quality shrimp possible, since they'll be showcased front and center in a cocktail. That means buying fresh, domestic shrimp (the guidelines for the American shrimping industry are much stricter than those imported from elsewhere), as large as you can find, with the shell on (and head, if you, like Prewitt, prefer).
Time is of the essence when it comes to cooking delicate shrimp, which is why it behooves you to cram their poaching liquid with as much flavor as possible, in the hope that they'll absorb some of it during their brief sojourn to the pot (see our recipe here). Prewitt's Cajun-style boil involves a hefty dose of spices, "a serious hammering" of salt and a lashing of (naturally) Louisiana hot sauce directly into the water. "You want an aggressive liquid, because only a little bit of that flavor will make it into the meat," Prewitt says (ours has lemon, bay leaves, crushed garlic, black peppercorns and Tabasco). Even if you're not going full-on ragin' Cajun, salt the water aggressively—your shrimp will thank you.
Cook the shrimp in their shells ("shell-off shrimp get weird and shrivel up when you boil them," Prewitt says) and pinch the thickest part of the critter (right where the body meets the head) to check for firmness, which indicates that it's done. Chill them in the fridge to stop any additional cooking, and then take a make-it-easy-on-your-guests (and yourself) page from food editor Andy Baraghani: Use kitchen shears to peel and devein each shrimp.
As for the cocktail sauce itself: Ours is a gussied-up version of the classic dip, with real-deal horseradish and roasted tomatoes. Tres chic, indeed.
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