I could serve shrimp every night and my sons would never get tired of it. Mention “Shrimp for dinner,” and their eyes would light up and they would go into their happy dance. That happy dance is just as adorable at 26 years old as it is at 3 years. Their expressions of joy and love could turn on me instantly with expression of “H o w D a r e Y o u,” if the shrimp portions were unequal. We may have started our dinner giving thanks and praying for world peace, but I could see their intense gaze upon each person’s plate scanning and counting the shrimp to make sure they were not cut short. God forbid someone in the family received one more shrimp than anyone else. If looks could kill, the scowl-glare of, “MORE SHRIMP” would do the job instantly. We may not be able to solve world peace, but at least we work very hard to keep the peace at home.
Looking though my recipe collection I realized that I have a large number of shrimp recipes. Most of them I have not used because having shrimp on the menu is usually a spontaneous decision, dependent on price and something I can quickly make with vegetables and pasta. (My kids favorite.) I did come across one recipe in my collection, Stir-Fried Sesame Shrimp and Spinach by Martha Rose Shulman at NY Times Cooking, that nudged me to remember a homework assignment I completed for an online class, The Science of Gastronomy at Coursera.org. Two science professors from the University of Hong Kong taught the course and focused the learning objectives on how cooking techniques are based on science, and how to use this science to make you a better cook.
In Ms. Shulman’s recipe she uses a Chinese technique to clean shrimp with salt and water. Flash several years back in time, my homework assignment for The Science of Gastronomy, tested the effects of soaking, (brining) shrimp in salt and water to see if there was any effect on taste and the mouth-feel of cooked shrimp. Reading this recipe was bringing it all back to me. I have the best intentions to remember everything that I have ever learned, but usually I need a clue and a bonk on the head to stir the memory bank. I just had to test this out again.
In summary, if you want to make shrimp talk add salt while you are cleaning the shrimp and they will become squeaky. The brining technique produces crunchy-squeaky-tender morsels of shrimp that squirt in your mouth. My homework assignment had us soaking shrimp in salt water, plain water and the control shrimp was left alone. The shrimp in the salt water definitely was more crunchy than the other shrimp samples. Soaking the shrimp in plain water left them mushy. As I understand it, the shrimp cells absorb the water and cause the cell tissue to collapse, giving you a mushy mouth-feel. Salt will draw the moisture out of the shrimp cells, but keeps the moisture absorbed in its own cells. The heat from cooking causes the salt to release the moisture out of its cells and back into the shrimp, making it tender, crunchy and squeaky.
This is the same concept of pre-salting food in the Zuni Cookbook, as featured in my recipe, Lemon and Herb Roast Chicken.
Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe instructed you to rinse the shrimp with water then toss the shrimp with salt, then rinse again and repeat. I found this method to be more effective at producing crispy shrimp than the soaking method of my homework assignment.
She also instructs you to use a “generous” amount of salt for the brining. I do not know exactly what a generous amount means, and I am cautious about adding too much salt to my food. My idea of generous may be different from her idea of generous, and different from your idea of generous. In the interest of keeping the salt to a minimum, I measured 1 slightly rounded teaspoon of Kosher salt per pound of shrimp for the brine. If you wish you can use my recipe as a guide, and carefully adjust the amount of Kosher salt you use to brine the shrimp to suit your tastes. The teaspoon of Kosher salt was my idea of generous and I was happy with my crispy, not salty, shrimp.
Don’t throw out the shrimp shells. They make a simple shrimp stock that can be used in any recipe that calls for fish stock or clam juice. (See notes in recipe for instructions.)
I made very slight changes to the recipe because I do not own a wok. I used a sauté pan, deglazed the pan with wine, and added preserved lemon. Both additions are optional and if you are using a wok you won’t need to deglaze the pan. On one occasion, I substituted the spinach with white chard – stems and all, and was equally delighted with the results.
Sautéed Sesame Shrimp with Spinach is an easy recipe, creating a delicious and healthy dinner in 15 minutes. No matter what variation you use, spinach or chard, wok or sauté, there is a generous amount of shrimp with each serving to satisfy all the shrimp lovers in your home. Bring on that happy dance.
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