You don't have to live in New England to treat yourself to the sweet, delicate meat of these little pink crustaceans. Have them shipped straight to your door if you like, then serve up a shrimp smorgasbord. They're only available for a few more months — but they freeze beautifully for the off-season.
If you're not close enough to New England to pick up fresh Maine shrimp yourself, you can have them shipped to your door.
Jessica Strelitz for NPR
Maine Shrimp: For A Limited Time Only
Jessica Strelitz for NPR
I have two favorite fresh food memories from the Maine winters of my youth: fried smelts for breakfast, and rose-hued shrimp sold out of the back of fishermen's pickup trucks. We would buy the shrimp on the side of the road, go home, clean them and toss them raw with hot linguine, garlic and vermouth — which most likely explains my penchant for martinis as an adult. The shrimp would be cooked before reaching the plate, and Mom could feed the entire family for about $5.
The shrimping season in the northern reaches of the U.S. Atlantic Coast has slowly been getting longer over the past decade, and 2010 marks the second consecutive six-month fishing season for Pandalus borealis, allowing fishermen to fish and trap the crustaceans from Dec. 1, 2009, through May 29, 2010. Projections of robust stock in the cold Northern Atlantic waters off Maine's shores prompted the powers that be to decide there was plenty to go around this season.
Maine shrimp are smaller than their larger and more familiar cousins. They are prized for their sweet, delicate meat that requires little, if any, cooking time. P. borealis are true Mainers, spending their entire lives breeding and growing in the Gulf of Maine instead of migrating like many other kinds of shrimp. Born male, they move out into deeper waters offshore after about a year and, two years later, become females, swimming back closer to the coast for spawning.
If you're not accustomed to driving along the Maine coast with a cooler in your back seat, there are other ways of getting in on the short-lived bounty. All Maine shrimp is wild-caught. Port Clyde Fresh Catch offers the crustaceans through its community-supported fishery program, the ocean-based version of community supported agriculture (CSA). Pickup is available at a number of winter farmers markets across the state and at pickup points in Rhode Island and New York.
If you're not in New England, though, you can seek them out in local fish markets or do what I did last month — mail-order them. A number of seafood markets in Maine will overnight them, but considering Maine shrimp cost $1 a pound whole, on average, and overnight shipping is eight to 10 times that cost — try to find a place that will pack them second-day mail for a fraction of the cost and exactly the same quality.
Twelve pounds of shrimp arrived at my door packed in dry ice, heads on, firm and vibrant. I carefully rinsed them and put aside a few pounds to freeze, then peeled six pounds of crustaceans — reserving the heads and shells for making risotto and bisque stocks. Piles of pink meat rose in a bowl next to the sink, bound for spicy scampi or raw crudo, while I rinsed, dried and removed the sharp point, known as a rostrum, on the heads of about 30 others for deep frying later. Once my tasters had assembled and the sauvignon blanc and pinot noir was flowing, the Maine shrimp extravaganza in my Virginia kitchen was on.
I started with the bisque, rich with cream and sherry and served with a no-knead whole wheat bread. It was quickly dubbed a hit. Moving onto the starches, I prepared a fiery scampi — cooked the way I remember from my teens, but with extra red pepper flakes — and a more mellow risotto, which split the tasters depending on their heat thresholds. Then came the crudo, as a palate cleanser — chilled, raw shrimp dressed with just a touch of olive oil, salt and fresh lemon melding into a creamy, sweet bite. Everyone tried it with minimal hesitation, and, surprisingly, the dish was embraced.
I finished the night with the cleaned, head-on shrimp, lightly dusted in cornstarch, quickly deep fried and served with a simple dipping sauce of pepper, rice wine vinegar and fresh lime. Everyone had insisted they were full five minutes earlier, but before I turned my back, they were munching away. I've never been happier than I was watching some of my best girlfriends suck down shrimp heads in my living room.
After nearly an entire Saturday of cleaning, peeling and cooking crustaceans, my entire condo smelled of garlic, cooking oil and shrimp (nothing some extra air freshener couldn't handle). My fingers were sore and raw from being poked by 400 sharp carapaces — and my five friends were strewn across the couch in happy food comas.
Pandalus borealis may only be around for a little while each year, but it's always worth the wait.