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Burning Question: Why are shrimp bland?

You can spice up shrimp with anything from

You can spice up shrimp with anything from garlic, to scallions and parsley. Above, green shrimp skewers with cherry tomatoes. Credit: Marge Perry

All too often, I find restaurant shrimp tasteless. My fishmonger told me about tiger shrimp, which he said were farm raised and bland. Am I imagining it, or are more restaurants serving this type of shrimp?
-- Marsha Cohen, South Huntington

There are four major types of shrimp -- white, pink, brown and tiger -- and tigers are both the cheapest and the least flavorful. In this economy, many restaurants are looking to cut costs; substituting tigers for more expensive shrimp would be one way to do so.

But it would be a mistake to think that blandness is the exclusive province of tiger shrimp, or farmed shrimp, for that matter. Tiger shrimp are farmed, primarily in Asia. But most of the white shrimp we eat also are farmed, some domestically but most in Asia or South America. Only the two rarest varieties, pinks and browns, are predominantly wild. Pinks, caught in the Atlantic from the Carolinas on south and in the Gulf of Mexico, are sweet and flavorful. Brown shrimp, from the gulf and the western coast of Mexico, tend to have a bit of an iodine taste.

Another variable in the shrimp-flavor equation is freezing. Shrimp are highly perishable and could never survive the journey from their warm-water homes to faraway markets. Folks who live on the South Carolina coast or along the Gulf of Mexico have access to fresh shrimp. The rest of us buy frozen. According to Luigi Novello, who owns Woodbury's retail-wholesale seafood market Jewel of the Sea, "98 percent of the shrimp in the U.S. is frozen." That's right, even those "fresh" shrimp at the market showed up frozen and were thawed at the store. (Sometimes, instead of "previously frozen," these will be labeled "refreshed," an appellation that always cracks me up.)

The final nail in the shrimp-flavor coffin is shelling. Fresh or frozen, no matter what the variety, if you buy shrimp in the shell and cook it in the shell, it will have more flavor. Better yet, if you can find shrimp with the heads still on, you will be amazed at the taste.

Shrimp is the most popular seafood in America; we consume more than 1 billion pounds of it every year. I used to think it ironic that our favorite shellfish was also the blandest, but eventually I realized that that's why it is our favorite shellfish. Clams, mussels, lobster, crabs -- these are all powerfully flavorful creatures. Most shrimp, on the other hand, have about as much taste as a skinless chicken breast, the shrimp of the poultry kingdom.

Is it OK to eat the skin of hard salami, sopressata and other dried sausages?

Yes. Whether the sausage casing is natural (animal intestines) or artificial (cellulose or collagen), it is perfectly safe to eat. If you want to remove it before slicing, here's a trick I learned from Lorenzo Galeotafiore, owner of Del Fiore Italian Pork Store in Patchogue: Cut off however much of the sausage you want to serve, and run it under hot water for a few seconds to hydrate the casing. Then, run it under cold water to cool it down. Make a shallow cut down the length of the sausage, then peel off the casing.

"If it's really troublesome," Galeotafiore said, "you can peel it under running water." Dry the sausage well before slicing.


Click here to see the recipe for the green shrimp pictured above.

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