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I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like shrimp. And like any good islander, I love them curried, grilled, with coconut, plain with a spicy sauce, in a Trini style pepper sauce, a co-opted Chinese recipe, that is now anything but Chinese (yes, there is a significant Chinese influence on the Island). However, my two favorite shrimp preparations are Classical Shrimp Scampi and Cantonese Butterflied Shrimp; notwithstanding, I would never refuse a really good Fra Diavolo over pasta. I previously provided my Far Diavolo Sauce recipe in my post on a West Indian Cooking Italian. Today I’ll talk about my two favorites shrimp preparations.
What is Scampi? That question will generate as many answers as the number of sources questioned. As best, as can be determined, in Italy, scampi can refer to a specific type of shrimp native to the Adriatic Sea and specifically the Bay of Venice. The Adriatic is the body of water that separates the eastern shores of Italy from the coasts of Croatia and Albania. It flows into the Ionian Sea before joining the Mediterranean Sea. There are those who claim that the scampi are more closely related to lobsters than shrimp or prawns. By the way, scampi is plural for scampo.
Scampi also refers to the many interpretations of the dish prepared with jumbo shrimp, olive oil, garlic and parsley. The cooking methods, however, vary considerably, from boiling, to broiling, and from frying to baking. Some insist that the shrimp be served in their shells, others only the tail shell. Fundamentally, as a gastronomic entity, it would be fair to say that Shrimp Scampi is a regional dish of Northern Italian origins with many local interpretations.
“The most authoritative answer came from Mrs. Hedy Giusti-Lanham, who styled herself ‘practically a scampo–although not quite as pink as I should be–because the best ones come from Venice, where I am from.’ ‘Plump little beasts. What are scampi?’ she asked rhetorically… They are like shrimps in this country, only smaller. The larger ones, like the jumbo here, are called scampi imperali; but the normal scampi are quite small. They are plump little beasts and are quite round when they sit on the plate, because the tails curl in close. No one where I come from would put a heavy sauce on top, like in shrimp cocktail.’ she commented. ‘They are usually thrown into heavy boiling water, then deveined and shelled and served lukewarm. Or they may be broiled by basting the shells with oil and putting them under the broiled or over charcoal and basting them while they cook. The shells get very dark and crack when the inside is done. They are served with their shells on. You put a little olive oil and a little lemon on them as you take them out of the shells, and a little pepper–but no salt. Garlic? Oh, no, no, no. They have such flavor that anything else would be an insult.’ Asked whether there was a great difference between scampi and American-style shrimp, Mrs. Guisti-Lanhan replied: ‘They are a similar type of person but the accent is very different.’” (Ickeringill, 1964)
Italian-American Shrimp Scampi
The classical interpretation I will follow, at least in terms of ingredients, is the one that became popular in the United States, following World War II. Remember, that there are minor variations to the imported version(s) as well. That pretty much leaves things to my peculiar penchants. The preparation method will be broiling.
Melissa Clark, the cookbook author and New York Times columnist, in an article for the New York Times, wrote that her ideal scampi’s sauce would emulate the buttery goodness of Escargots à la Bourguignonne. I admit that is a lofty goal but not exactly my goal, I do want the same bread sopping buttery goodness, but I am looking for an extra bit of zest and brightness created by red pepper and lemon juice. In addition, I use cognac in my altered Escargot recipe, for the scampi, white wine is much preferable to cut the fattiness of the clarified butter. Lastly, I wanted a sauce that would be as satisfying with bread or over linguini.
I leaned heavily on recipes from SAVEUR and Italian Food Recipes (part of the Recipes.com Network) for the ratio of garlic to butter and olive oil. I combined the butter and olive oil because I wanted the flavor of the oil to meld with the shallots and garlic as opposed to the all butter approach of some recipes. There are those who believe there is no such thing as too much garlic, I am not one of them, as with all things, a little perspective or restraint is required. I can accept a little heavy handedness, but I’m not trying to gross out the world here, just flavor the shrimp.
Finally, I like my Scampi Sauce flavored with all the goodness of garlic and shallots and red pepper flakes, but the only thing I want at the table is the parsley, so I strain the sauce before I broil the dish. Here is my interpretation of this classic.
Cantonese Butterflied Shrimp
There’s a restaurant in the lower level of 21 Mott Street, in the Chinatown Two Bridges neighborhood of Manhattan. Its name is Hop Kee, but to my family and me it will always be referred to as 21 below (because you had to climb down some steep stars to the basement level). This is not a large restaurant, by any standards, it is a family restaurant, no fancy tablecloths but for years, my dad would go out of his way to stop and bring home Chinese food, especially Butterfly Shrimp, for my mom.
Even then, Butterflied Shrimp was hard to find on Cantonese menus, now even fewer restaurants carry this Cantonese delicacy. My mom liked Hop Kee’s the best because it was served without onions, a common serving style for these jumbo shrimp, splayed, battered and fried with bacon.
There are two ways to butterfly shrimp; from the back, widening the shrimp and making a good base for stuffed shrimp, or from the inside, forming a T shape with the curled ends of the shrimp. We want the inside cut (both cuts pictured next to this paragraph). The recipe below attempts to emulate their style, the source for the batter is based on input from several Cantonese chef recipes. If you prefer them with onions, the onions are thinly sliced and sautéed in a wok until soft, not caramelized, with a bit of oil and soy sauce, that’s it. The shrimp are usually served on a bed of onions.
The trick is in getting the bacon cooked without overcooking the shrimp, it takes a bit of skill with a wok but it will also work with a chef’s pan. If you like your bacon well done, cook the strips half way first, using a bacon press to keep the strips flat, then cut them to size with shears. (Bacon strips are attached to the bottom of the splayed shrimp, after they are battered.) You want to cook the shrimp and bacon pieces on the sides of either pan, but first the pan and the oil must be hot and then swirl the oil to coat the sides before you begin. They only need about five minutes to cook, about three minutes with the bacon side down and two minutes after the flip. Instead of using whole eggs and flour for the batter, I chose egg yolk only with cornstarch.
While I don’t want a bed of onions for my shrimp, I do want onion flavor; so I sauté half a thinly sliced onion, discard the onions and use the same oil for cooking the shrimp. Alternately, you could add a dash or two of onion powder to the batter. Click here for my interpretation of 21 Below Butterfly Shrimp.
Love, laugh, cook & enjoy!
Ickeringill, N. (1964). Food News: Italian Ways With Scampi. New York: New York Times.