Shrimp cocktail has a mystique. At least in my mind, it is associated with the hushed atmosphere of a “good” restaurant. My daughter has eaten in restaurants more in her 15-year lifespan than I may have before the age of 30, but when I was growing up in a middle-class town in northern NJ, with immigrant parents who’d lived through WWII, a restaurant meal was a once or twice a year event for our family. When we did go, I certainly wasn’t allowed to order the coveted and expensive shrimp cocktail, but my father was. It would arrive, as it often did in the 60s and 70s, presented in a huge metal contraption that housed shaved ice, a reservoir buried in the ice for the spicy, ketchup-y sauce, with the pink and proud jumbo shrimp perched delicately along the rim , like so many hummingbirds on a backyard feeder. Savoring each snap and crunch of the cooled shrimp, the brine of them reminding him of his days living in Marseilles working as a merchant marine sailing the ports of the Mediterranean, my father would sometimes let me have a bite. And what a bite it was. Not enough to satisfy, but just enough to make me long for my own order of the dish, my own full order….someday. How decadent and grown up and guilty I felt the first time I sat in a restaurant as an adult and ordered one all to myself. The classic shrimp cocktail may not be the darling of food-forward menus these days, but it is still a crowd pleaser, as evidenced by the proliferation of ready-to-go tractor-trailer-hub-cab-sized platters of it you can find at most large grocery stores, with their rubbery, flavorless shrimp and out-of-a-can-tasting cocktail sauce. The version I’m sharing with you pays homage to my iconic Shrimp Cocktail memories, but brings it up a notch, building flavor and tenderness in the shrimp with a brine, packing a punch of flavor with spices, and a little flavor building technique for the sauce.
Nothing too out of the ordinary in terms of ingredients for the sauce, but I do choose organic ketchup for the base because it does not have the high-fructose corn syrup found in most ketchups. The elevation of the sauce comes in the applying a few classic techniques for building flavor. Start with shallots and celery seed in olive oil…
…end up with this.
Add the ketchup and Worcestershire…
…and then reduce, over low, low heat, stirring frequently, for about 20 minutes, concentrating the flavors, thickening the sauce and turning it into a deeper, richer red. Add horseradish and a bit of tabasco for the bite that bites you back. And a squeeze of lemon.
Combine….and set aside, after you are done tasting and tasting and tasting it. Leave some for the guests!
The peeled and deveined shrimp get a one-hour brining that gives the finished cooked shrimp a wonderful inner flavor to complement the outer sauce, and a wonderful tender texture too. After draining the shrimp from the brine, and patting it dry, you shower them with the spice combo that takes this “shrimp cocktail” into the present and leaves that classic one in the musty closet of the past. Smoked paprika, chipotle chili powder, cayenne, cumin, salt and black pepper, with a little olive oil to help them wear it all well.
Roast them in a 400 degree oven on a rack to let the heat circulate around them.
And watch them carefully, for 4-5 minutes so you don’t overcook. And that’s it….aside from perhaps a judicious squeeze of lime over the finished shrimp…or the addition of a shot of tequila or vodka to the sauce to prove you are an adult and can have the alcohol AND as many shrimp as you damn well please.
If my father were still with us, and at my house on Super Bowl Sunday when I’m going to make a big batch of these, he’d want to have some. And maybe, just maybe, I’d let him.
- prep time: Brine ahead 30-60 minutes, 15 minutes prep other ingredients
- cook time: 8 minutes
- yield: Serves 8
Spicy Roasted Shrimp with Bloody Margarita Sauce
FOR THE SAUCE:
2 cups ketchup
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2-3 tablespoons freshly grated horseradish root OR 2 tablespoons high-quality bottled horseradish
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
¼ teaspoon ground celery seed or celery salt
1 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon hot sauce (Tabasco or similar)
2 medium shallots, peeled, and minced finely
1-2 oz. white tequila of choice (optional, and to taste)
FOR THE BRINE:
8 cups water
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 garlic cloves, peeled, smashed
3 cups ice
3-4 lbs. large shrimp, (8- to 12-count per pound) peeled and deveined. (About 4-6 shrimp pp)
FOR THE SHRIMP:
¼ cup or more cup extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons lime juice
1/4 cup minced chives
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground coarse black pepper
1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon chipotle or adobo chili powder (or if you can’t find these, regular chili powder)
Pinch of cayenne to taste
Zest of one lime
1-2 limes, cut in wedges for drizzling.
In a small saucepan, heat the olive oil, then add minced shallots and cook over medium-low heat to soften the shallots, and lightly brown them, about 3-4 minutes. Add the Worcestershire sauce to deglaze pan, the ketchup and hot sauce. Let the mixture cook over a medium-low flame and reduce for 20 minutes, stirring frequently. This will concentrate the flavors and create a thicker, richer sauce base that takes on a deeper red color.
Meanwhile, combine water, kosher salt, sugar, and garlic in a large pot or container to make the brine. Cut the lemons in half, squeeze the juice into the brine, and throw in the squeezed halves too. Add the ice. Place the peeled and deveined shrimp (you can leave tails on or remove with a scissor, according to your preference) in the brine and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an 1 hour.
When the ketchup mixture has cooked and reduced an inch or so in volume, remove from heat. Add the lemon juice, lime juice, horseradish, lime zest, ground celery seed and tequila. Combine thoroughly, transfer into a small serving bowl and refrigerate until cooled, at least 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Place a cooling rack on the baking sheet. (If you don’t have a cooling rack, you can roast the shrimp directly on the pan. Roasting them on the rack allows the heat to circulate and cook the shrimp up above any moisture…but it’s just a fine point. They’ll come out fine cooking right on the sheet tray too.)
Remove the shrimp from the brine and lightly pat dry with paper towels. In a bowl, toss the shrimp in the olive oil, lime juice, cumin, smoked paprika, chili powder, cayenne, salt and pepper to taste. Spread the shrimp out on the cooling rack on the lined sheet pan. Roast in the middle of the oven for 5-6 minutes, or until the shrimps are just turned pinkish white and are firm to the touch. Shrimp can overcook really quickly, so keep an eye on them.
Remove shrimp from oven and immediately transfer to a serving platter, arranging the shrimp around the serving bowl filled with the Margarita sauce. Microplane lime zest lightly over shrimp and serve with lime wedges or drizzle with lime juice. Serve.