I first learned to eat shrimp whole, with the shells on, from a Brazilian friend, one snowy winter. We were visiting Maine during the (once-abundant) Maine shrimp season. Before, I had always fiddled about before with peeling the shells off these small beasts. Once I recognized the outside skin as a crunchy textural addition to the overall dish, I never looked back.
From there, it was an easy step to eating larger-sized gulf shrimp, or the fabulous shrimp from South Carolina, with the peel and even heads on. Cooking the shrimp whole in the shells also protects the sweet shrimp inside, keeping the flesh moist and tender. It’s easy to flavor the shells with aromatics in the cooking oil (in other words, without much fuss).
While there are plenty of variations to be made on this simple technique, I always return to this savory Mediterranean combination of garlic and rosemary. Frying the shrimp in hot olive oil quickly crisps the shells up and seals in the juices, and throwing the salt on hot shells just as they come out of the hot oil really bonds the salt on to the shell, granting plenty of flavor. I like to squeeze a little lemon over everything for the acidity, and also because it softens the texture of the shells.
Of course, I really love to make this dish with head on shrimp, but those are not easy to come by if one is not in fresh shrimp country. Plus, it does work just as well without heads. I like to use what’s called 16/20 shrimp, meaning there are 16-20 shrimp per pound. I generally steer clear of farm-raised shrimp from other parts of the world, as they are often the product of environmentally dubious situations. I much prefer wild or farmed American Gulf, Florida or Carolina shrimp. They are usually frozen aboard the fishing boats as soon as they’re caught, and thus tend to be really fresh. Unlike a lot of fish, the texture of shrimp is strong enough to stand up well to freezing.
This is a really easy quick dish that tastes delicious and—okay, okay—works even if you insist on peeling off the shells after cooking. But I hope you will trust me and give the whole shrimp a try. You might find yourself keeping it on for other recipes, too.