Shrimp Boils are for Sharing

Let it be known that I have beautiful, amazing, wonderful friends who know how to adult far better than I, especially in the housework department.

When I was dealing with the pantry moth/house appraisal stuff, I called one such lifeline to help kick my arse into gear through the final stretch of housecleaning required before landlady and appraiser dude turned up.

Boy howdy, did he ever come through. I don’t think my kitchen was as clean when I moved into this joint 12 years ago as it is now. To top it off, he brought his partner who disappeared into my bathroom for about three hours straight and when I went up to make sure the toilet hadn’t swallowed him, the loo positively GLEAMED. We’re talking Glenda the Good Witch albedo level, here.

Of course I offered to feed them in return for their efforts, but after four hours of working our hineys off in oppressively hot and muggy weather, we decided swims and naps were a higher priority than delicious food.

Yesterday, I got to pay it back and amassed all of the makings for a shrimp boil at their pad and had intended to do it on the BBQ, but my friends have CENTRAL AIR. How I’d been longing to properly build a big pot o’ something, letting things simmer away, creating layers of flavour and rich textures without sweating away into nothingness.

We even had two pots going at one point as my friend decided to make a gumbo as a tomorrow meal at the same time.

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I love when I can work comfortably with someone else in the kitchen. Things did get a little dancy by times, but no blood was shed…or sweat. What a treat.

Anyways, let’s talk about seafood boils. I’m a mainlander Ontarienne and oodles of boil recipes call for things that are simply not within my grasp. I am certain that I’ve had boils that included things like Old Bay seasoning and Zatarain’s Crab Boil (in a bag?!?!). I have come across recipes that call for both. I am certain that these are awesome, all-powerful thingies and, one day, I shall endeavor to forage for them and make a boil with them, but right now, I wouldn’t even know where to begin so I just use what I know because I’m lazy.

I think sometimes we think of shellfish as inaccessible due to a) cost and b) getting it wrong. What I love about a boil is that it doesn’t require any fancy-pants ingredients at all, goes a long way for what you spend, and is very difficult to get wrong.

This recipe makes eight hefty servings (though, yesterday, it only fed four voracious adults who skipped lunch) for under $30 (excluding only the dried herbs and spices, all of which are pretty common to most pantries). That’s under four quid per bowl of stuff my friends lauded as being “better than from a restaurant” and one of them grew up in Newfoundland. Buddy knows his fishy bits. I’ll take that as high praise.

This is accessible. So let’s do it, ja?

Like the bouillon, it’s important to make this mess (it really is a bit of a mess) in the right pot – something heavy-bottomed and large enough that will leave lots of space for stirring once all of the ingredients have been added to it is a must. I use the same pot for this application that I use for bouillon or I use an enameled cast iron dutch oven which holds roughly the same amount of stuff, but is wider and makes for nicer presentation. I’ll talk more about presentation later.

What you need:

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large red or yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 5 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1 sweet, red pepper, finely chopped
  • 3 stalks of celery, finely chopped
  • 1 large tomato, diced
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tbsp coriander
  • 3 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 4-5 bay leaves
  • 2 cups dry, white wine or beer
  • 1 tbsp fennel seeds, loosely ground
  • 1.5 lbs baby red potatoes
  • Water as needed
  • 4 smoked sausages
  • 4 cobs of corn, husked and broken into smaller pieces
  • 1 tbsp dried thyme
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1.5 lb uncooked shrimp (it’s up to you whether you want to peel these or not – the shells will add flavour and slow down eating – see presentation notes for more info)
  • 2 tbsp dried parsley
  • 1/2 cup of butter
  • 4-5 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 baguette
  • 1 lemon

What you do:

  1. Heat your pot over medium-high and add the olive oil, onions and garlic.
  2. Once the onions are translucent, add the pepper, celery, tomato, spices and bay leaves.
  3. Stir this constantly until aromatic and almost browning. Add more olive oil as needed.
  4. Add the potatoes, one cup of wine, and enough water to cover the potatoes.
  5. Let boil for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until potatoes are almost fork-tender.
  6. Add the sausages and let boil for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  7. Add the corn, herbs, remaining wine, and enough water to cover.
  8. Let boil for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally until corn is tender.
  9. Stir in the shrimp and parsley, cook for about 5 minutes or until the shrimp is no longer translucent.
  10. Using a large, slotted spoon, remove the big, chunky bits (shrimp, corn, sausage, potatoes) to a large vessel (I recommend a big, deep bowl because it will keep them hot), leaving only the broth and finely chopped veg.
  11. Over high heat, reduce the broth until there is only about 2 cups left.
  12. Stir in the butter and crushed garlic.
  13. Add the shrimp, corn, sausage, and potatoes back to the pot and heat over medium-high for 5 minutes to recombine and get everything reheated and slathered in broth and butter.
  14. Squeeze a lemon over the lot of it and serve with slices of fresh bread for sopping.

Presentation notes:

My favourite way of serving a boil is putting the lot of it in the middle of the table with a ladle, a bowl for shells and corn cobs, and another bowl full of bread. This way is very casual and eaters can fill their individual bowls as and when they wish throughout the meal. This style is great if you want to leave the shells on the seafood. Everyone gets messy and slowly enjoys the food. Platters look like a cool way to do this, but they make it very difficult to serve the broth. I prefer a shallow, wide bowl or pot, or even a casserole dish, as we used yesterday (see pic).

For a fancier presentation (and portion control), peel the shrimp and add the corn cobs whole, scrape the kernels into the pot after reducing the broth and serve in individual bowls with a slice of lemon for each and a side plate for bread. To make it even fancier, omit the parsley and lemon and top each bowl with a bit of gremolata.

Other notes:

Do not make/serve this when people allergic to shellfish are present. It is next to impossible to avoid contamination when people are eating a meal of shellfish with their hands.

Don’t be afraid to run fast and loose with the ingredients. Dishes like this are represented by almost every culture with ready access to fish. Use your favourite seasonings for fish, whatever veg is in season in your area (or about to go bad in your refrigerator), or whatever potables you see fit. Replace the red potatoes with sweet potatoes, the corn with carrots, toss in some spinach or chard at the end. Pretty much anything goes as long as you’re mindful of layering in those flavours and textures.

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