Most of the time, when I want shellfish, I want it as simply prepared as possible, since it tastes so damn good just the way it is. Shrimp and crab legs in particular (and lobster, of course) are best, in Lolita’s world, when they’ve been steamed or boiled, and then served with melted butter. I’ve had them made in myriad other ways, too, and enjoyed it – but if I see “boiled shrimp” on a menu, I go gaga. They can be expensive, though, and here in Boston they cost $2-$2.25 *each* when purchased at a raw bar. That’s why I make them myself; at even $16/lb for the large 16/20 count shrimp (that means there are between 16-20 shrimp per pound), I’m saving a ton of money — which means I can buy and eat more shrimp! On Sunday, during a foray south to the sleepy little metropolis that is New Bedford, MA, to visit their thrilling whaling museum, we foraged through the industrial waterfront area seeking a seafood market that sold to the public. Boy oh boy, did we find one! The perfectly plump shrimp and long, shapely snow crab legs you see above were so sparkling fresh, that they needed very little by way of accouterments other than a simple beer and spice infused steambath- but Lolita whipped together a fun and flavorful parmesan polenta overflowing with a creamy cheese sauce anyway, just to add a little starch to this swimmingly spectacular meal of fruits from the sea.
Steamed Crab Legs and Shrimp with Molten Parmesan Polenta
1lb snow crab legs
1lb 12/15 count tiger shrimp
2 cans/bottles of beer
whole peppercorns, fresh cracked pepper, juniper berries, sea salt, bay leaves
2 cups polenta
grated parmesan cheese
1 1/2 sticks butter
New Bedford is a rather economically depressed little town, which is sad, considering its rich history. I betcha not many people outside of Massachusetts are really hip to it, unless they’ve been lucky enough to read Moby Dick. It’s an American masterpiece for a reason; for those of you who’ve never tried, or have tried and failed, to read the novel, I encourage you to READ MELVILLE. I realize that, as a lifelong student and lover of literature, I’m hard-wired to read where many fear to tread, but Melville’s voice is one every person on the planet should hear in their own heads as they absorb the words off his pages. Moby Dick may be a whale of a book, but it is a work of incredible beauty and of almost divine grace, a story which captures the motion and passions of the sea, and harnesses it for its readers to ride to dizzying heights and soulful depths.
Fleet Fisheries Fisherman’s Market might have been one of Melville’s favorite places to shop for seafood, if he weren’t at sea himself (and dead and buried these past 120 years). Their storefront, hidden in the back of their warehouse with an unobtrusive signpost pointing the way to an unassuming single door leading in, was like the TARDIS – I expected a small counter and a cramped cooler with a couple of fish in it, and instead I was greeted by a huge white space chock full of iced shelves bursting with tons of fish in various states of deshabille - whole to gutted to filleted to cooked. And the prices! $14/lb for 12/15 count shrimp! (Those are usually $21-$25/lb at Whole Foods.) $8.99 for snow crab legs! Shut the front door! Less than $30 later, Clayton and I had the makings of a killer seafood feast. It may be worth the hour and a half drive down there to shop again…
Just look at that plump, beautiful shrimp. We got about 20 from our 1.25 lb, so Clayton and I were pleased as punch.
Now those are some legs, baby! Two clusters, each with five legs and one handsome claw. These are, of course, not harvested anywhere near the Massachusetts coastline — they come from much farther up north, as anyone who watches “Deadliest Catch” knows — but given the major seaport that New Bedford still represents, they can bring them in in bulk and pass the savings on to voracious leg-lovers like me.
Nothing goes better with shellfish than beer. I’ve been drinking this Session Black Lager lately with gusto, and El Claytonious has been enjoying the ubiquitous, and local, Narragansett tallboys. I used one of each in my boil. Why? Because we each only had two beers left, and the day was early, and we were too lazy to head to the store for more. I don’t recommend using a port or stout or barley wine or anything too heavy for a beer boil, but lagers do provide a surprisingly good flavor base. It’s not the alcohol, it’s the hops and malt that infuse the tender meat inside these exoskeletons with flavah. I pop both open and dump them in my pasta boiler/steamer pot.
I also add about 1 quart of water, some peppercorns, juniper berries, bay leaves, and a healthy amount of salt. All this gets set over the burner and brought to a boil – which takes a little while (considering how much liquid there is, and how cold my beers were).
Shrimp and grits are standard house fare at Lolita’s, but I try to shake it up from time to time with some polenta – grits’ less ground-up cousin. 2 cups of corn meal whisked into 3 cups of boiling salted water gets me started, and I cover this and reduce the heat to low so everything can simmer and thicken.
Now that my shellfish boil is roiling, I add my shrimp to the deep pasta pan and lower them into the beerwater.
I then put my crab legs into the shallow steamer basket, fit that on top of the pot (above the shrimp), and then cover. This only needs about 5 minutes to cook, which is good – since my polenta is almost ready.
It’s nice and stiff, the corn toothsome but no longer hard, and I add a tablespoon of butter and some parmesan cheese. But it’s too dry for me, and I want something more creamy and flavorful.
At the last moment, I decide to whip up a quick simple parmesan cheese sauce with about a cup of heavy cream set over medium heat to simmer, about 1/2 a cup of grated cheese, and some black pepper, sea salt, and a scratch or two of fresh nutmeg. I whisk all this together and allow it to thicken slightly.
Our assortment of weapons, and our baths of butter. I add a few dashes of truffle salt to my butter (because I’m decadent that way), and Clayton starts banging his shellfish forks on the table, demanding his dinner. (My favorite is the furthest fork, with the wee little tines on one end, and the lobster-clawed, inner-knife-edged cracking/splitting apparatus on the other end.)
To moltenize my polenta, I first dished it up into a buttered 6oz ramekin to set the form – which only took a moment or so. I then carved out the center of the form, removing a wine-cork sized plug from the middle, into which I poured my parmesan cheese sauce. The result? A delicious and fun to eat mountain of sweet/salty corn grits spilling over and out with a creamy river of omygoditsogoodness. My perfectly boiled shrimp and steaming hot crab legs are redolent of only the best parts of beer, with a little kick and sweetness from the juniper and pepper berries. The truffle butter bath is the perfect dipping sauce for my firm white thumbs of shrimp, and it dribbles lazily down my chin from the threads of my hard-won crab leg meat. I should have dashed some chopped parsley or green onions over the plate for presentation purposes, but damn it if I wasn’t too hungry for this meal to waste the time with flair. Sometimes, it’s the simplest things that make the most wonderful in the mouth.