Is There Such a Thing as Guilt-Free Shrimp?

Lots o' shrimp

The season for Northern Shrimp typically begins in December.

Shrimp is a staple in our household. It’s easy to cook, versatile, and, tastes good virtually any way you prepare it.

Although I’ve known for a long time that 90 percent of the shrimp that we eat in the US is farm-raised under unsavory conditions, I’ve never figured out what to do about it. Pretend I don’t know? Eat it, but feel guilty? Only eat wild shrimp? Stop eating shrimp altogether?

(For terrific reporting about the shrimp business, I recommend Jim Carrier’s piece, “All You Can Eat: A journey through a seafood fantasy” in the March/April 2009 issue of Orion and Barry Eastabrook’s article, “Do I Dare to Eat a Shrimp?” in the March 2007 Gourmet.)

Until recently, I’ve made an effort to purchase or order shrimp that was designated as wild,” whenever it looked good and/or I felt I could afford it.  I just assumed that “farm-raised = bad, wild shrimp = good.”

This week, I realized that it was time to ditch my simplistic approach to choosing shrimp and try to learn something about what I was buying. First, Legal Sea Foods Restaurant “stirred the pot” by hosting a well-publicized, $115-a-plate dinner in Boston on January 24 featuring Atlantic cod, haddock, and tiger shrimp—fish that sustainable seafood experts encourage consumers to avoid. For example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommends that consumers avoid purchasing black tiger shrimp because farming harms mangrove forests and artisanal fisheries.

The mainstream media, bloggers and many respected organizations have been buzzing about the dinner. According to the Boston Globe, Legal’s stated that “outdated scientific findings unfairly turn the public against certain species of fish,’’ so they are serving the “blacklisted fish” to counter “misinformation” about sustainability.

Since I eat at Legal’s fairly often and think of them as seafood experts, I decided to try to find out if they were justified in serving farm-raised shrimp. Although not everyone agrees, I learned that some people believe shrimp farming is here to stay and it can be done in a sustainable way.  I also found out that wild shrimp fishing isn’t problem-free.  The nets the shrimpers use can pick up anywhere from 2-10 pounds of unwanted seafood and junk (known as “by-catch”) for every pound of shrimp. Even though they sort through the haul, save the shrimp and throw the other fish back, it’s often already dead. So much for my simplistic farmed = bad, wild = good equation.

In my favorite article about the Legal’s brouhaha, titled “DON’T PANIC: Sustainable seafood and the American outlaw,” marine biologist and blogger Miriam started by confessing that despite what she knows about shrimp farming, she can’t resist eating a “Surf ‘n’Turf” burrito with shrimp now and then. She interviewed Rich Vellante, Executive Chef of Legal Sea Foods, about what he put on the menu for the famous dinner. Vellante said Legal’s had sent people to Vietnam to inspect the shrimp farming operations and there were “certain stipulations” that had to be followed, but he didn’t have the details of what that meant, and Miriam was unable to get hold of anyone else who did.

She was, however, able to locate the latest scientific findings (from  June, 2010), indicating that–despite massive mangrove restoration–shrimp farming continues to cause severe water pollution in Vietnam. So even if Legal’s has found some responsibly farmed Vietnamese shrimp, it’s certainly not all good.

Coincidentally, my Cape Ann Fresh Catch Community Supported Fishery (CSF) share this week consisted of featured 5 pounds of whole, head-on “Northern Shrimp” (Pandalus Borealis).  The Northern Shrimp fishermen have virtually eliminated the bycatch by using nets with a mesh size that minimizes unwanted fish and by not using mechanical devises to sort the fish that could damage the ones that are thrown back in the sea. Seafood Watch rates Northern Shrimp “a good alternative,” and the Blue Ocean Institute gives it its highest (Green) ranking.

A plate of pasta

Northern Shrimp are easy to peel, but small.

I took the shrimp home and immediately washed them and removed the heads, as instructed. It was surprisingly easy to remove the heads—just a little twist and they were separated from the bodies–but because these are small shrimp, it took an hour to go through all five pounds. I made shrimp linguine with sautéed onion, garlic, olive, tomato, and pea pods. Many people rave about the sweet flavor of Northern Shrimp; I can’t say I noticed any special taste, but I really enjoyed eating my meal, guilt-free!

Unfortunately, I can’t get all the fish I need from my CSF, but I’ve resolved to do my best to “know my fish” by asking questions at the fish counter and at restaurants. Despite Legal Sea Foods’ skepticism, I believe that the lists of which sea foods to choose and which ones to avoid are a wonderful starting point, so I’ve downloaded the free iPhone apps for both Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute. (Blue Ocean also offers a FishPhone texting service to receive ocean alerts with info on new rankings or breaking ocean news.  To opt in, text BLUE to 30644).

While I know I won’t be able to resist the occasional shrimp taco, in the future, I may smile at the person behind the counter and ask if she knows where they get their seafood.


Dinner at Alinea: Art, Theatre, and, of course, Food

A trio of edible cocktails

Our "artful" dinner began with a trio of edible cocktails

I’ve often heard people talk about food as art, but I’ve never seen it that way myself until I was treated to a fabulous experience last week involving food. Although it took place at a restaurant, I felt like I was sitting on an art museum stage, participating in a performance piece.

Alinea logoMy sister Louise was celebrating a special birthday and invited Michelle and me to celebrate with her at Alinea, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Chicago’s tony Lincoln Park neighborhood.  Alinea is located in its own two-story building. The décor is sophisticated and modern, befitting the temple of food created by chef/owner Grant Achatz.

The approximately twenty courses on the tasting menu feature marvels of molecular gastronomy as well as more traditional morsels. Although it may sound like more food than you could possibly eat in one sitting, the courses are small and are spaced out over a serene four hours.  Since each course is designed to surprise you, you don’t actually get to see the menu until the end, when you are given a souvenir paper listing what you’ve eaten.

You simply take your seat and let the chef and his army of cooks and servers begin the show. The waiters didn’t actually sing or dance, but they were definitely choreographed. In a space no bigger than my living room, a half-dozen waiters circled around the five tables in our area, setting up each dish, reciting the ingredients, and explaining how to eat it.  Although they didn’t go so far as to bang a gong each time they served us, each course was announced with the fanfare of a royal decree.

Earl Grey pillow

Louise discusses the dish placed on a pillow of Earl Grey-scented air.

The food is presented and served in or on an amazing array of implements and dishes, from doll-sized dishes and tiny pedestals to a lit branch of oak serving as a skewer and a bowl constructed out of metal puzzle pieces. One of the dishes was placed on a white pillow of Earl Grey-scented air, releasing the distinctive smoky smell of bergamot to complement the Earl Grey tea, lemon, pine nut, and carmelized white chocolate favors in the course.

Alinea offers wine pairings, but we decided to order by the glass as the spirit—so to speak—moved us.  The wait staff were helpful at making suggestions as to what type of beverage—alcoholic or not—would be most appropriate at any given stage in the meal.  We started out with a delicious champagne cocktail, mixed with bitters and spices, and progressed to wine, beer, and a home-made purple carrot soda.

Our second dish of the evening

Our second dish of the evening was "Golden Trout Roe"

The meal itself began with a trio of what the servers called “edible cocktails,” and that’s what they were – luscious little bites infused with bitters, brandy, rum, fruits and spices. Each was just a single tingling mouthful that left me craving more.  The Golden Trout Roe—one of my favorite dishes of the evening—followed beautifully.  It was a soupy orange bowl that zinged with Dijon mustard, rutabaga, grapefruit, and the roe.  I would have gladly made that my entire meal.

Puff pastry

Puff pastry with venison

Puff pastry

My vegetarian puff pastry with celery root.

One of the most delightful surprises of the evening was how well they catered to my pescovegetarian diet. Louise told them I didn’t eat meat when she made the reservation, and the kitchen rose to the challenge. Unlike some fine dining establishments I’ve been to where the chef gives little thought or creativity to vegetarian cooking, the kitchen created vegetarian or seafood simulations of the courses containing rabbit, short rib, duck, venison, foie gras, and bacon that were every bit as dazzling as the meat dishes.

Our final course

This chocolate extravaganza was our final course.

The final course was a chocolate, peanut, blueberry, cream, honey extravaganza that was literally painted on our tablecloth.  The servers deftly poured liquid chocolate and other substances in circles, dots and swirls all over the table, then cascaded mounds of peanut nougat, frozen chocolate mousse, and other delightful substances on top.  We were each given a large spoon to dive into this artistically arranged mess.  It made an extravagant finale to an unforgettable meal—or should I say performance?

How to Make a Kickin’ Vegan Hoppin’ John

Black-Eyed Peas

These black-eyed peas have been soaked overnight.

When the clock stroke midnight on New Year’s Eve, did you dive a spoon into a pot of Hoppin’ John so you’d have good luck in 2011? Don’t worry, I didn’t  either. But I made up for it today by cooking up a pot of what I’ve dubbed  Kickin’ Vegan Hoppin’ John, so hopefully I’ll be swimming in green this year.

Hoppin’ John is an African-American dish that is eaten on New Year’s for good luck.  The main ingredient is usually black-eyed peas (said to be brought to America by African slaves working on the rice plantations), served with rice.  To cinch the deal, people usually eat some kind of greens—the color of money–with their Hoppin’ John.

There seem to be as many versions of Hoppin’ John as there are stories about how it got it that odd name or why it brings you good luck.  My theory is that it’s basically a pretty healthy dish, and, as they say, “Health is Wealth.”

Black-eyed peas take less time to cook than most other beans, but they don’t have much flavor. Hoppin’ John is usually made with bacon or a ham hock, but vegetarians have to find other ways to give it a kick.  Since one of my New Year’s resolutions is to find new ways to encourage myself and others to eat healthy and local foods as much as possible, I was eager to create a cheap, healthy recipe that would please both vegetarians and meat-eaters. I hope this dish will help you enjoy a happy, healthy 2011.

Kickin’ Vegan Hoppin’ John


Olive oil spray
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, cored and julienned
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
1 carrot, thinly sliced
1 hot green chili, cored and most or all of the seeds removed, depending on how hot you like your food
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup dried black-eyed peas, soaked overnight, drained, and cooked until barely soft (you can substitute 2 packages frozen, thawed and rinsed or 2 15 oz. cans, rinsed)
1 14.5 can diced tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon smoked paprika (regular paprika will work, but the smoked paprika adds a nice kick)
½ teaspoon salt (adjust to taste)
½ teaspoon pepper (adjust to taste)
1 teaspoon Liquid Smoke (adjust to taste)
1 12 fl. Oz. bottle dark beer
Tabasco sauce (to taste)

Coat a large sauté pan with a few sprays of olive oil and heat pan to medium.  Sauté the onion for a few minutes until it begins to soften.  Add the red pepper, celery, carrots, and hot pepper and stir occasionally for three minutes.  Add the garlic and cook 1 minute.  Add the diced tomatoes with their juice.

Drain the black-eyed peas and add to the pot. Stir in the bay leaf, thyme, smoked paprika, salt and pepper, and Liquid Smoke. Pour in the beer. Stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the liquid is reduced but there is still some sauce. Remove the bay leaf. Add Tabasco sauce and adjust seasonings to give it the kick you will need to get through 2011 in health and wealth!

Hoppin' John

Kickin' Vegan Hoppin' John over brown rice, served with a side of collard greens.

Serve over a bed of cooked brown rice with a side of collard greens for extra good luck.