On Shrimp Shells

I never order shrimp at restaurants. For the longest time my mom went around telling people I have a problem with the stuff.

And I let her. Because I do. I have a problem with shrimp. It’s not that they have juicy heads that gush brains, or eyes that stick out on stalks, or that they feed on detritus. It’s not that they’re cute, though they are. It’s that most people who cook shrimp don’t cook it right, probably because they are scared to death of demanding too much of the people they are feeding. The number one way to mishandle shrimp? Shell and devein them before cooking. The worst thing you can do to good shrimp is to do too much.

Any person who knows her food will tell you that the flavor in a shrimp is in his head and shell. So that stuff that mom’s throwing away, the supposedly nasty stuff we can’t eat, is precisely what makes shrimp taste like, well, shrimp. When I see what could have been a succulent, flavorful piece of meat split open in the back and curled up into a tight fetal ball, its proteins exposed to too much direct heat, I feel… wrathful.

Cooking shrimp shell-on serves at least three purposes. One, the shell imparts flavor, so that your food is not just a lump of rubbery protein on the plate, but something tasty, something sublime. Two, it protects the meat so that it’s harder to overcook. When cooked this way, shrimp steam inside their shells, absorb heat slowly, and so hold their shape and texture. Three, and this is important, it prevents over-seasoning. The flavor of shrimp is delicate and finicky, and it’s easy to be heavy-handed with salt. Problem solved. Plus it cuts out a lot of prep work.

A less obvious thing that’s awesome about shell-on shrimp? You have to eat it with your hands. Meals like this close the distance between you and your food. It’s democratic, it’s relaxed, it breaks down walls between people who might otherwise be busy worrying about what to do with their extra fork.

So I pretty much see no downside to cooking shrimp this way, the right way. Some might say that it makes the little guys more difficult to eat, but that’s a stance I have zero sympathy for. We should have to work a little harder for better food. It’s messy. It’s fun. It’s… right.

– Angela

Shrimp and Polenta

– 2 lbs large shrimp, shell on
– 1 cup red onion, diced
– 1 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped, plus 1/4 cup
– 1 shallot, sliced thin
– 1/2 head garlic, sliced thin
– 1/2 cup green onion, sliced, plus 1/4 cup*
– 1/2 cup red bell pepper, diced
– 1/2 cup yellow bell pepper, diced
– 2 cups dry white wine
– Juice of 1 lemon, plus another lemon cut into wedges
– 2 tbsp butter, at least
– Olive oil
– Salt, pepper, red pepper flakes to taste

* Do you really need red onion, shallots, green onion, and garlic? Well, no. But I had them all around. Any combination of these aromatics will do, but I find the green onion and garlic to be essential.

For the polenta:
– 1 cup cornmeal
– 4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
– 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
– Butter
– Salt and pepper to taste


In a large skillet over medium-high heat, saute peppers, onions, shallots, green onions, garlic and parsley until softened, about five minutes. Reserve 1/4 cup green onions and 1/4 cup parsley until the very end. Deglaze the pan with white wine, scraping the brown bits off the bottom. Turn the heat to high, then add the butter and the shrimp. Cover the skillet, stirring occasionally, until shrimp are pink, about 7-10 minutes. Sprinkle with reserved parsley and green onion.

For the polenta, heat chicken stock in a pot until it’s simmering. Slowly whisk in the cornmeal to avoid clumping. The polenta should thicken immediately. Keep a bowl of hot water handy to add in case it thickens too much. Before serving, stir in Parmesan cheese, butter, salt and pepper. For the best timing, have the chicken stock simmering on the stove while you soften the vegetables. Whisk in the cornmeal when the shrimp is just about done. The polenta should be luscious and soft.

Pile shrimp over a scoop of cornmeal. Serve with lemon wedges, good hot sauce, and lots of napkins.

9 thoughts on “On Shrimp Shells

  1. Crepes of Wrath says:

    I’ve only had polenta once at a Spanish-fusion restaurant and I wasn’t a huge fan – this one looks much better and so I’ll have to give your recipe a try! I love your kitchen – so much beautiful, natural light!

  2. Katerina says:

    I gotta say I disagree, I always de-vein shrimp before cooking them… and unless it is a dish of just shrimp then I hate having to shell them as I find the flavour of the sauce don’t permeate the shell. Just my opinion of course.

  3. Tsk. says:

    You know what my #1 problem with shrimp is? People who refuse to eat it just because it wasn’t devained. There’s nothing unsanitary about leaving the vein in as long as the shrimp is cooked through. Maybe you think it’s disgusting, maybe you don’t, but at the end of the day, it’s just plain food snobbery. All the fuss simply because you heard someone else say it.

  4. Angela Mears says:

    Tsk, agreed. Saying that deveining shrimp is some kind of imperative is as whacky as suggesting that you should gut out a clam or oyster before eating it. You plumb out the guts and there’s nothing left.

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