Enjoy our national treasure: shrimp

For me, a pound of shrimp fresh from the market represents a fast and tasty meal. And beginning in April of every year, when the season for our wonderful little Pacific shrimp begins, my thoughts turn to all the ways I can take advantage of this exquisite Northwest offering.

Some of the best hunting grounds for Pacific shrimp lie between the Columbia River and Yaquina Head. Hence, the ports of Astoria and Newport process the most shrimp. The biggest loads arrive early in the season. But supplies always seem to remain relatively constant until the season closes at the end of October.

Besides the tiny little West Coast specialty, there are hundreds of shrimp species available throughout the world. Here in the United States, shrimping as an industry was thriving as early as the 17th century in Louisiana. But because of shrimp's tendency to spoil quickly, it wasn't until the early 20th century, when advances in on-board refrigeration allowed for wider distribution, that shrimp became a national treasure.

In my kitchen, the two varieties I'm most fond of cooking with are the tiny Pacific shrimp, when they're in season, and the rock shrimp. Rock shrimp are so named because they have a rock-hard shell that is generally removed mechanically during commercial processing. This is what gives the shrimp its "broken" appearance. The flavor of rock shrimp is phenomenal. When cooked, they come close in flavor and texture to lobster meat — only at a much lower price.

As with all varieties, if you can't obtain them fresh from the sea, fresh-frozen or barely thawed are the next best options. In fact, with modern seafood-handling equipment on most ships, shrimp are processed and frozen so quickly on board the vessels that the quality is actually superior to shrimp that have been brought to shore in a fresh state and shipped off to retail outlets. By the time you have a crack at purchasing "fresh" shrimp, they're at least 36 hours older than frozen shrimp.

So go ahead and indulge in frozen shrimp if you are assured of their overall quality, then let them thaw gently overnight in your refrigerator and proceed with your recipe. Just before cooking, a light rinsing under cold running water should remove any trace of "fishiness" from your catch.

Shrimp cocktails are still my hands-down favorite preparation for Pacific shrimp. And my most fun form of said cocktail is a make-your-own shrimp cocktail bar, an arrangement in which diners assemble their own appetizer from an array of chopped celery and colorful peppers, two different cocktail sauces and a big bowl of cooked Pacific shrimp. I've done this in the casual outdoor settings of campgrounds and picnics (just put out the clear plastic cups and bowls), as well as more formal events where my loveliest crystal martini glasses are employed.

Jumbo shrimp — oxymoron or goofy grading system?

Almost as puzzling as shopping for olives, the grading system for shrimp has confused shoppers for ages. Here's how it works: Shrimp are graded by size or "count," which indicates the number of shrimp likely to be in a pound. The smaller the number in the count, the larger the shrimp.

A pound of "tiny" would therefore number 70-plus shrimp; "extra-small," 61 to 70; "small," 50-plus shrimp; "medium," 42 to 50; "medium-large," 36 to 42; "large," 31 to 35; "extra-large," 26 to 30; "jumbo," 21 to 25; "extra-jumbo," 16 to 20; "colossal," 10 to 15 and "extra-colossal," under 10.

And then there's the prawn versus shrimp terminology to consider. The general consensus among experts is that all freshwater species are prawns and all marine species are shrimp. However, in general usage it's far from clear. In the U.S., "prawn" is often used to describe "large" or "jumbo" shrimp, whereas in England, very small, canned shrimp are called shrimp and all other sizes are labeled as prawns.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com.

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