Sea Island regulars who play the back nine of the famous Old Course at this coastal Georgia resort in late afternoon often see the shrimp boats coming in. The small elevations in terrain that make Sea Island a more interesting and challenging course than most to be found along the flat southeast littoral of the U.S. provide frequent vistas of St. Simons Sound to the southward. And in early spring, when the shrimp fleet operates in this part of the Atlantic, the little trawlers come chugging through the sound each day about 4 p.m., heading for the mouth of the Turtle River and the unloading docks at Brunswick.
There are many varieties of shrimp marketed in the U.S., with most of the catch coming from fishing grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. But local shrimp men around Brunswick will tell you that the mildest and sweetest of all are the "Georgia whites" of this area. The cookery of coastal Georgia has traditionally featured many fine shrimp preparations, and these have become favored dishes at The Cloister, the hotel which forms the nucleus of vacation activities at Sea Island. One interesting concoction by Chef Herman Yursich of The Cloister is a marinade which imparts a surprising garden taste of fresh greenstuff to cold shrimp. I found the dish a pleasant change from the familiar "shrimp cocktail" with spicy tomato sauce which has been the standard first course of so many million restaurant meals.
When I tried Yursich's recipe at home, the first thing needed was a quantity of boiled fresh shrimp. How long should the creatures be boiled? I turned to some standard cookbooks for advice on the matter. Here are the instructions encountered in five of them, each a respected culinary guide:
1) "Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the shrimp turn bright pink."
2) "Bring them to a boil, then simmer—the small ones for about 5 minutes, the larger ones up to 10."
3) "Simmer for 15 minutes."
4) "Simmer 5 to 12 minutes or until tender."
5) "Simmer 2 to 5 minutes—never longer."
How to explain the general anarchy of opinion among the experts? Perhaps it is no more than evidence of the fact that cooking is indeed an art and not a science. In every culinary situation there are variables, and a recipe is no more than a point of departure for the skilled cook, who shifts and adapts measurements according to his conditions of the moment. The boiling point of water, for example, varies with altitude; a pot of stew on a stove in Denver, boiling at a relatively low temperature, might take 50% more time to cook than the same dish on a stove at sea level. And what about the heat of the fire? Anyone who has had experience with breakfast eggs knows what a difference there is between five minutes of brisk boiling over a high flame and five minutes of gentle simmering.
So, depending on your height above sea level, on the heat of the fire, on the size and variety and freshness of the shrimp and possibly on the state of the weather and hour of the day, it can be said with exactitude that the shrimp should be plunged into a boiling court bouillon and after the liquid has returned to the boil they should be simmered until done and not longer. (In the particular environment of New York City, 11 stories above sea level, on a cloudless spring afternoon with the wind a few degrees north of west, exhaustive testing by this experimenter proved four minutes of simmering to produce an excellent result with the medium-large white shrimp available in the local market. With longer cooking the shrimp acquired a mealy texture, and their flavor decreased in direct proportion to the number of added minutes on the stove.)
The court bouillon is simply salted water which has been boiled for 10 or 15 minutes with a choice of flavorous ingredients to counteract any "fishy" taste. Good things to use are celery tops, a few peppercorns, a bay leaf or two, a pinch of thyme or orégano, a couple of cloves, a few branches of parsley, a cup or two of leftover white wine. After cooking the shrimp, allow them to cool in this court bouillon. Shrimp stored in the refrigerator should be left in the shell to retain their moistness. Shell and devein them just before preparing the dish at left.
MARINATED SHRIMP (for twelve)
3 pounds cooked and cleaned shrimp
1 cup well-seasoned French dressing
½ cup finely chopped green pepper
¼ cup finely chopped mild onion
¼ cup finely chopped parsley
1 clove garlic, crushed with salt
2 tablespoons Bahamian mustard
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients in a bowl and chill for 2 hours or more. Before serving, sprinkle with additional chopped parsley.