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~ Once Upon a Time: A Tale about Shrimp Cocktail ~

6a0120a8551282970b01bb07aaa2a5970dOnce upon a time, when I was around five years old, which would have been 1960, I was certain that my mother was the inventor of shrimp cocktail.  You might think that odd, as shrimp cocktail has the reputation for being reserved for special occasions or eating in fancy restaurants.  That was not the case in our house.  My mom loved shrimp cocktail.  She almost always had a large jar of it in our refrigerator.  She'd simmer two pounds of jumbo shrimp and carefully whisk together the cocktail sauce.  She'd put the slightly-warm shrimp in the jar, pour the sauce over the top and refrigerate them overnight. She ate shrimp cocktail on crackers like people eat tuna salad.

Img_large_watermarkedAs I got a bit older, I would sit and watch all of the famous television families (the Ricardo's, the Nelson's, the Cleaver's, the Anderson's, the Brady's, etc.) swoon over giant shrimp cocktails during upscale restaurant scenes.  So, when I got a bit older than that, the later '60's, I spent my fair share of restaurant time imitating them and ordering shrimp cocktail as my appetizer.  Due to my close association with my mother's outstanding version, those restaurant "cocktails" often turned out to be theatrical disappointments. Yes, even as a twelve year old, I knew there was more to shrimp cocktail than just boiling shrimp to a rubber-like texture and topping them with a glop of jarred sauce.  As a grown up, this is probably why I will almost never risk ordering a pricy (around $15.00 - $20.00) shrimp cocktail in a restaurant to this day.

Traditional shrimp cocktail, as we know it today, originated in the early 20th century, with oysters, not shrimp, being the original "cocktail hour" shellfish.  They were typically served in tiny cups as appetizers.  The oysters were topped with a spicy ketchup-based sauce containing horseradish and Tabasco, which paired great with martinis and a handful of other pre-dinner cocktails.  Then, along came the 1920's:  the decade of Prohibition.  Bars and restaurants all across America were faced with a lot of idle stemware, until, a savvy bartender or restaurant owner somewhere got the idea to serve his/her shellfish appetizers in the cocktail glasses that were once used to serve alcoholic beverages.  The transition from oysters to whole shrimp did not happen to put the "tail" in "cocktail appetizer".  It came about to please the ladies.  The whole shrimp, complete with the pretty little red tail served as a handle which enabled women to daintily pick-up, dip and eat.

Sau-sea-shrimp-cocktail-advertisementThe first mass produced shrimp cocktail was introduced to the American marketplace in December of 1948.  Sau Sea brand Shrimp Cocktail was invented in New York City by two entrepreneurs by the names of Abraham Kaplan and Ernest Schoenbrun.  The pair borrowed $1,500 dollars from relatives to start retailing individual, 5-ounce portions of ready-to-eat shrimp cocktail, packed in reusable, glass jars, for about 50 cents a piece.  It was just after WWII and frozen/pre-packaged foods and meals were just beginning to gain popularity.  Their timing could not have been better.   Their risky decision to try to take a restaurant delicacy and make it available to the masses paid off big time.  A quick internet search informs me that over sixty years later it is still being sold, so, they must be doing something right.  My main reason for telling the Sau Sea story is:  this is the way my mother prepared her shrimp cocktail -- all swimming around together in that big jar of spicy sauce.

PICT4409For the shrimp:

2  pounds jumbo (16/20 count) shrimp, peeled and deveined

6a0120a8551282970b01bb08975709970d(Note: I buy both fresh and frozen shrimp, but I always try to purchase tail-on, shell-on, deveined shrimp. To thaw frozen shrimp safely, place them in a bowl of cold water for about an hour.)

5  cups water

2  cups white wine

1  large, juicy lemon, cut in half

4  medium-sized bay leaves

PICT4396For the cocktail sauce:

1  12-ounce bottle Heinz chili sauce (about 1 cup)

1/2  cup Heinz ketchup

1/2  cup prepared horseradish

1  tablespoon fresh lemon juice, from above lemon

1  tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2  teaspoon Tabasco sauce, more or less, to taste

1/8  teaspoon sea salt

lemon wedges, for garnish


~ Step 1.  I prepare the cocktail sauce first, as it tastes best after having been refrigerated, which gives all of the spicy flavors time to marry.  In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together all of the cocktail sauce ingredients, as listed.  Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.  Overnight is best.  

Note:  After you squeeze and add the 1 tablespoon of lemon juice from 1/2 of a lemon to the sauce, do not discard the lemon or any juice remaining it it.  You will be using it when you cook the shrimp.

PICT4421~ Step 2.  To cook the shrimp, place the wine and water in an 8-quart stockpot.  Squeeze the lemon juice into the pot, then add the lemon rinds.  Add the bay leaves.  Bring to a boil over high heat.  Add the shrimp.  When the water returns to a boil, cook for exactly 1 minute.  Do not overcook the shrimp.



~ Step 3.  Drain the shrimp into a colander and rinse under very cold water until shrimp are cool, or cold, to the touch, but ever so slightly warm in the center.  Transfer to a food storage bag and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.  Peel.

Note:  This cooking and chilling method is my secret for succulent, perfectly-cooked shrimp.

  PICT4437 To prepare shrimp cocktail my mother's way:

Cook the shrimp exactly as directed above.  When the cooked shrimp are cooled as directed, quickly peel them (leaving the tails on or off, your choice), and place them in a jar or a food storage bag as you work.  Toss with all of the prepared sauce.  Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

Note:  Using a large food storage bag is actually a lot easier than the jar, but I feel compelled to use the jar just because it makes me happy to see it sitting in my refrigerator just like my mother used to do! 



Once Upon a Time:ccA tale about Shrimp Cocktail:  Recipe yields enough shrimp to make 6 shrimp cocktails and 2 cups cocktail sauce.

Special Equipment List:  whisk; 8-quart stockpot; colander; food storage bag; 2-quart jar (optional)

6a0120a8551282970b015393c53d2f970bCook's Note:  Both versions of shrimp cocktail can be prepared up to three days in advance of serving. I, personally, cannot tell you which one I like better.  My mother's presentation is a little more rustic, but the shrimp take on all of the wonderful spicy flavor of the sauce, which gets rave reviews each and every time I serve them.  The classic version, is, well -- classic.  What I can tell you is this:  once you start cooking shrimp according to the above directions, you will get a true appreciation for perfectly-cooked, seriously-succulent shrimp. 

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2011)


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