Thursday, December 6, 2007

Fish & Seafood: Shrimp Casserole

“I’m really not looking forward to this, you know.”

That’s what my husband said to me when we were at the grocery store buying the ingredients for the shrimp casserole this week. Yeah, I told him, well, neither am I, but it’s all in the name of scientific research, so buck up. As I mentioned, we don’t have much to choose from in the Fish & Seafood section. This was really the best of the bunch. Here’s the original recipe as written (I say that because I’m not going to indicate every single place there’s a misspelled a word like casserole or tomato—you’re going to have to trust me that these typos are in the original and are not mine).

SHRIMP CASEROLE (Helen Deines Johnson)

2 ½ pounds large shrimp (reserve half a dozen for garnish)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon salad oil

¾ cup Uncle Ben’s rice
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup minced green pepper
¼ cup minced onion
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/8 teaspoon mace
Dash cayenne pepper
1 can tomatoe soup
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup sherry
¾ cup slivered almonds

Cook shrimp. Marinate in lemon juice and oil overnight. Cook rice as directed. Melt butter, sauté onion and pepper. Put all together. Add to rice and remaining ingredients and toss well. Bake uncovered 55 minutes in 350 degree oven. Garnish with remaining shrimp and bake twenty minutes more. Serves 6 to 8. (Caserole improves if refrigerated about 4 hours before baking.)

This recipe came from my grandmother (I recognize the typeface of the typewriter she used for so many years before she bought herself a computer), who got it from her sister-in-law (my grandfather’s sister). I can’t decide about this particular recipe—is it supposed to be a party dish, or an every day kind of thing? Most of the characteristics of it point to the former—it’s made with shrimp, heavy cream, a half a cup of sherry, and it takes over an hour to cook. However, it also uses Uncle Ben’s rice, and a can of tomato soup, which sort of says “short cut” to me, but considering that the recipe is probably from the late 1960s, I guess it’s possible that it could still be intended for “an occasion.” Using canned and convenience foods back then was considered clever. Today they’re so mainstream that we look down on the can-of-mushroom-soup type casserole as being commonplace almost to the point of vulgarity.

I actually made this recipe over the course of three days and, as far as I can tell, the finished product didn’t suffer in any way from this delay in preparation. You’re supposed to marinate the shrimp overnight anyway, and the instructions clearly say that sitting in the fridge for four hours improves the final result. I cooked the shrimp on Sunday, marinated them over Sunday night, made the sauce on Monday and poured the whole thing into a pan, and then baked it off on Tuesday evening.

Let’s start with the ingredient list. The shrimp in my grocery store came in two pound bags, so I cut the recipe down to that amount, and let me say that it’s probably still enough for 6 to 8 people. I cooked and marinated them as the recipe instructs, using canola oil for “salad oil.” That amount of liquid seemed kind of stingy for the huge number of shrimp, but I used what it said. I’m not honestly sure that the marinating did any good at all. I couldn’t tell that they were in any way enhanced by spending all that time languishing in a plastic bag with a splash of lemon juice and oil.

I did use Uncle Ben’s rice, as specified, although I can’t say I think it made a ton of difference. The correct amount of any brand of rice would probably be fine. The only thing I can think of is that this recipe was originally developed by Uncle Ben’s, so that’s why it specified the brand. I also just diced up a whole green pepper and a whole onion, instead of measuring out a quarter of a cup of each.

When we came to the mace, I dug out my little jar of it, and sniffed. It still had some flavor, so I figured it was OK to use. But I did take it over to Alex and ask him to smell it and see if he could guess what it was. He said it smelled weird, and more like poultry seasoning than anything else. When I told him it was mace, I could see that look of trepidation cross his face, and you could tell he was thinking, “What am I in for?”

I sauteed the peppers and onions as instructed.

Then we get into kind of a vague area about what to do with the stuff. The original recipe says “Put all together. Add to rice and remaining ingredients and toss well.” It doesn’t really give any clear direction as to what’s getting put all together, and once you add the rice, which ingredients are then remaining. So for my part, when the peppers and onions were done enough, I added the shrimp with its marinade and let that cook down for a few minutes, then added the seasonings, then added the liquid and let it reduce for a few minutes more.

This particular set of instructions is also a bit coy about just what size dish is best. I used a 9”x13” casserole, because it’s what I had handy, but I wonder if a smaller, deeper one wouldn’t have been better. At this point I covered it with foil and put it in the refrigerator until the next night.

I baked it for the specified time, but it was pretty obvious to me from the results that that was a bit long. It got a little brown. I think it could have cooked for half the time and been fine, considering that the shrimp were already cooked when it went into the oven. I ended up toasting the almonds under the broiler because I was afraid the rest of it would be done to death by the time they were toasted in a regular oven. I also skipped keeping back some shrimp for garnish. I just couldn’t see any way that they were going to add anything of an aesthetic nature to the finished product.

And the big questions—how did it taste, and what did my husband think of it? To be honest, it wasn’t bad. It had decent flavor (doubtless a result of all that heavy cream, and the sherry). The one thing I would say against it is that the shrimp had exactly the texture you’d expect shrimp to have when they get the living snot cooked out of them. I mean, really, they were cooked to begin with in boiling water, then they got baked for an hour and fifteen minutes. They were a little on the flabby side. My husband agreed with me on all these points, but admitted that it wasn’t half as bad as he expected it to be. I think we were both expecting a rice casserole studded with shrimp, and what we got was a casserole of shrimp that had a little rice in the sauce as a binder. I served it with green beans sautéed in butter.

I seriously doubt I’d ever make this again, primarily because of the expense of two (or two and a half) pounds of shrimp. However, it wasn’t such a ghastly mess that I won’t even eat the remaining shrimp. And this could be brought into the modern age with a few changes. For starters I wouldn’t bother cooking or marinating the shrimp at all, but would just add some lemon juice to the pan when I put the raw shrimp in with the peppers and onions. The sauce could probably be made using half and half, whole milk, or even a mixture of whole milk and reduced fat milk, to cut the fat from that source. It might not be quite as rich as the heavy cream version, but it would be healthier.

However, if I wanted something to take to a “Retro potluck” this would be it. It’s impressive (who ever gets to eat that much shrimp anyplace but at a restaurant?), it’s reasonably tasty, and it can be eaten with just a fork so it’s perfect for a buffet.

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