Friday, December 12, 2008

Shrimp with Vanilla Bean Butter

This recipe was inspired by a lobster dish I had at Legal Sea Foods a couple of years ago. It was absolutely brilliant, but, unfortunately, was a special, and I haven't seen it since. Here is my version, adapted for serving at home.

It's fast, it's easy, it's tasty, and it will impress your guests!


As with many of my recipes, the ingredients matter. This recipe is especially sensitive to quality, so don't skimp!

Get the biggest shrimp you can find and afford. The larger shrimp will have a crunchier, crisper texture, more like that of a lobster tail. They are pricey, but it's worth it. I wait until they go on sale and then buy a bag or two. No matter what size you buy, be sure they still have their shells on. The toasty flavor that you get by cooking the shrimp in their shells is integral to this dish!

Don't substitute vanilla extract for the vanilla bean. It won't work.

And, for the love of the food gods, do not, I repeat: NOT, use margarine or other butter substitutes. You have been warned...

One substitution I can recommend is to use lobster tails (broiled in their shells) instead of the shrimp. You're on your own for cooking instructions, though; I hear it's hard to cook them through without drying them out.

Shrimp with Vanilla Bean Butter
Serves 2 as a main course, or 4 as an appetizer

Prep: 5 minutes, not including thawing time
Cooking: 4 minutes


12 oz to 1 lb. shrimp, still in their shells
Olive oil or clarified butter for brushing (less than 1 Tbsp)

3 Tbsp butter
1-inch length of vanilla bean
salt to taste (optional)


- If the shrimp are still frozen, thaw them, but do not remove the shells. It's safest to thaw them overnight in the refrigerator. I usually thaw them in a bath of cool water on the kitchen counter, changing the water once or twice, and removing any ice that forms. However, that method does NOT meet food safety guidelines. I warned you, so you'd be trying it at your own risk.

- Preheat your broiler or grill on high.

- Slit the vanilla bean lengthwise, and scrape out all the tiny seeds, and place the seeds in a small microwaveable bowl or sauce dish.

- Add the butter, and microwave on the lowest power setting (try defrost!) until melted and warmed, but not spattering. Stir to mix.

(Feel free to melt the butter using the method of your choice. You can also clarify the butter for fancier presentation, but that's optional, and I prefer the flavor of non-clarified butter.)

- Pat the shrimp dry with paper towels, and place on a broiler pan or grilling skewers. Brush or spray with oil to lightly coat the shrimp, paying attention any exposed flesh.

- Broil/grill the shrimp 4-6" from the heating element, turning once, until the flesh is just opaque, and the shells are toasted, about 2 minutes per side.

The exact color of the toasted shells is up to your personal prefernce: they may have a few light brown toasty spots on them, or be somewhat blackened. The only important thing is that the flesh is fully opaque, but not dried out, and that the shells give off a nice, toasty flavor.

Serve in the shells, with dipping butter on the side.

Serving Tips:

Accompaniments: This is amazing with pan-grilled asparagus (recipe coming soon). Keep any starch accompaniments relatively neutral: creamy mashed potatoes without herbs, pasta with butter, or just some good bread. I love the idea of the texture of a creamy risotto with this, but risotto isn't really risotto without the cheese, which would clash with the vanilla... (Maybe a garlic-and cheese-free pseudo-risotto should be my next experiment...)

Wine Pairings: This is absolutely perfect for a Viognier. If this is a celebratory dinner, a decent dry champagne-style sparkling white would also work well. I am a fan of Korbel; it's not in the same league as Veuve Clicquot, but it's a very nice wine, and a good deal for the price ($12-15).

Presentation: If you really, really want to, you can shell the shrimp before serving, but they look so much nicer in their shells! It's not hard for the guests to shell them at the table: pull the meat out by hand (make sure they've cooled enough to handle), or use your fork to lift the meat out from the shell, and your knife to cut it free at the base of the tail.

For formal presentation, you can sever the meat from tail before serving (don't pull the meat out of the shell, just use a sharp knife to slice through it where it meets the tip of the tail), or provide finger bowls of lemon water and small towels or napkins.

Seafood Watch:
(Note: the rating only applies to seafood purchased in the US. Readers from other countries may want to try the Seafood Choices Alliance)

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Score: Avoid

Shrimp is listed as a "good alternative" if it's produced in the US or Canada (farmed or wild), but the vast majority of shrimp you'll find is produced in supermarkets is imported, which is on the "avoid" list. Your fishmonger may be able to get you domestic shrimp, as well as lots of other tasty seafood.

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