There are few things I look forward to about New England winters, but the arrival of tiny Maine shrimp at our markets is one of them. They start showing up around January, and as they are local(ish), sustainable, inexpensive and downright delicious, I can never seem to resist bringing some home. Their flavor is sweet and delicate, so I don’t like to do too much to them, and they require a minimal amount of cooking since they’re so small (some people actually eat them raw, but I have yet to go there). Peeling these little guys is the hardest part of working with them, but their shells come off fairly easily, and they make a tasty broth for use in a shrimp risotto, or in this light chowder. —lastnightsdinner
4 as a main course, more as a starter
Maine shrimp, peeled, shells (and heads, if you have them) reserved
Kosher or fine sea salt
double-concentrated tomato paste (from a tube)
medium leek, white and pale green parts only, cut into very thin half-moons
fennel bulb, finely diced
celery, thinly sliced
waxy potato, like Nicola or Yukon Gold, cut into ½ inch cubes
For the shrimp broth, take the reserved shells (and heads), place into a pot, and add the water, a good pinch of salt, and the tomato paste (odd, I know, but I love the little bit of sweetness it gives, plus a hint of rosy color). Bring to a boil and then simmer, uncovered, until it reduces a bit, tasting and adjusting the salt as needed. When the stock is ready, strain it through cheesecloth to get rid of the shells and any foam or scum that has formed, then set aside or cool and store for future use. You should have about 4 cups worth.
In a heavy-bottomed pot, melt the butter and add the diced pancetta, frying until it is crispy and golden, stirring occasionally. Remove the browned pancetta and drain it on a paper towel-lined plate. Add the leek, fennel, and celery, season with a pinch of salt, and stir to coat with the fat. Cook about 5 minutes until softened, then add the potato and the shrimp broth. Bring just to a boil, then cover, reduce heat to low, and cook just until the potatoes are tender.
Stir in the half and half, season with pepper, taste and adjust the salt if necessary, and once the soup is back up to temperature, turn off the heat. Stir in the shrimp, cover, and let sit until the shrimp have cooked through in the hot liquid (this should take just a few minutes). Ladle the soup into warmed bowls and top with the crispy pancetta and snipped chives.