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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Old Bay

After my family moved back to the States, we spent every summer at the beach on Chincoteague Island, Va.  A small causeway seperated the town of Chincoteague from  Assateague Island National Seashore.  Although they are often referred to as the ponies of Chincoteague, the horses actually live on Assateague and own the island with  full rights of way in regards to cars, bycycles, and pedestrians.  The ponies live  peaceful lives until the annual swim and auction  benefitting the local fire department.  They are rounded up, checked by vets, and herded into the bay for a swim across the water into town for auction.  They are treated well and find suitable new homes. In addition to the financial benefits, it is also a good method for population control. A win win situation.

We vacationed on the island either before or after the pony swim because the festival swells the population of the small town from 3,000 to 45,000 in one week.  We stayed far away from our island home during that time of year.

Our summers there were quiet and languid. When we weren't swimming, kite flying, or shell hunting, we were crabbing for our dinner.  The narrow causeway between the two islands was  the ideal spot for snagging beautiful Maryland blue crabs. Chicken necks tied to string were playfully thrown out into the water and gingerly  wound back to shore  with crabs nibbling on the chicken parts the entire while.  Once spotted in the shallow water, they were netted and stored in buckets of sea water until we had  secured a few dozen for steaming.

We had several crab pots back at the house to accomodate and cook our daily catches.  They were designed to steam crabs above  rapidly boiling flavored water.  The steaming liquid could be seasoned in many ways, but one thing that never changed was the liberal dousing of Old Bay  seasoning that coated the bright red steamed shells of the cooked blue crabs.  I can still see it, smell it, and taste it.  Old Bay was, is, and will always be the only way to season steamed crabs. It is an intoxicating blend of celery salt, mustard, red pepper, black pepper,  bay leaves, cloves, allspice, ginger,mace, cardamom, and paprika. Ideal for sweet delicate crab meat.

It has been so hot and humid here lately. Chincoteague kind of hot and humid, without any ocean breeze or an ocean, for that matter..  The sweltering  humidity and heat has reminded me of beach weather.  Beach heat. Beach food.  It occured to me yesterday that if I couldn't have the ocean here, I could at least taste it. 

Since fresh Maryland blue crabs are not available, I decided to have an Old Bay steamed shrimp dinner with the same flavor profile of steamed crabs.  On the way to the market, we came across a pickup truck parked by the roadside with farmers selling fresh corn from their heaping  truck bed load full of fresh picked Silver Sweet corn. Sold. That's when it hit me;  Steamed Shrimp Low Country Boil.  I would cook the shrimp in the style of steamed Maryland blue crabs, but steam them over traditional low country boil ingredients.

It came together quickly and required no work.  Once we got home, I shucked the corn. It was so fresh.  Still wet from an early morning harvest.  The silks were tight, thin, and damp. I cleaned the ears, halved them, and tossed them into a large bowl with quartered new potatoes, chopped green peppers, and sliced onions.  I nestled the bowl into the refrigerator next to a pound of 21-25 count fresh peel-on shrimp and took to my couch until dinner time.

A few hours and several glasses of wine later, I started the oceanless Old Bay steamed shrimp low country boil feast.

I placed a large stock pot over a medium high flame and poured in a cup of water, a cup of chicken stock, a half cup of white vinegar, and 2 tablespoons of Old Bay.  Once the liquid came to a boil, I tossed in the red potatoes, green pepper, corn, onions, and a stick of unsalted butter.  After simmering the vegetables for 30 minutes, I placed a colander into the pot over the vegetables, layered the deveined unpeeled shrimp around the colander, doused the shrimp with more Old Bay seasoning, and covered the pot to steam the shrimp for exactly 2 minutes.  Overcooked shrimp is a very bad thing.  For their size, 2 minutes was perfect for tender shrimp.

Steamed crabs are traditionally dumped onto a newspaper covered table littered with wooden mallets for shell cracking.  Although low country boils are sometimes served in a similar manner, I emptied the entire pot of shrimp, vegetables, and cooking liquid into a large serving bowl. A  parsely stem and thinly sliced lemons finished it off.
No utensils needed.  I plopped the gigantic bowl in the middle of the coffee table between the two of us in front of the television and surrounded it with demi-tasse bowls of drawn lemon butter and  hot steamed napkins. Finger food.

The Old Bay, stock, vinegar, butter, and water pot likker bathed the corn and potatoes with a buttery pepper spiced richness. Perfect for  toasted baguette soppers. The stock infused corn popped with every bite providing texture while the sweet and tender shrimp melted with gorgeous mouthfeel. Having to pry the spice laden shells off the pink shrimp meat was dirty primal finger-licking fun.

Was it as good as fresh steamed  blue crabs from Chincoteague summer's gone by? Hardly, but it was really good. The Old Bay Seasoning was a culinary memory sensor.  Even without an ocean or a breeze, it was almost as good as being back there.

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