Story by Grace West; recipe by Henry Schliff
As I begin a kayak tour, I hand out dip nets, and when asked what they are for, I say, “To catch my lunch.”
As we paddle from the Pamlico Sound toward the coves and creeks in the National Seashore, where the water depth is often one foot, I demonstrate how to sweep through the eel grass with a net to catch baby fish, crabs and shrimp. Emphasis on baby. They are tiny. The shrimp are usually no longer than an inch, though fully formed except for their shells.
As the shrimp jump around in the net we see their little beady eyes, antennae and even their internal organs through their iridescent bodies. They look so fragile. No wonder they seek the camouflage of the nutrient-rich eel grass to grow up in.
Most of what we see in the early summer months are the brown shrimp that have drifted into these safe estuaries from the ocean where they were spawned. They will stay and grow quickly — doubling in size every few weeks until their natural instinct to reproduce clicks in and they begin their journey into the sound and eventually back out into the ocean.
This cycle takes about two years. Some of the grown shrimp will make it out into the ocean to reproduce and some will end up on our tables in our favorite recipes.
Later in the summer, we might see white shrimp (called green tails) and in the early spring, pink shrimp, which are rarer. Brown shrimp make up 70 percent of North Carolina’s catch, white shrimp 24 percent and pink shrimp only 5 percent.
As is often the case on Ocracoke, information is gleamed informally at the grocery store or at the post office by simply running into our neighbors.
Patty Plyler, who runs the retail shop at Ocracoke Seafood, loves to announce, “The shrimp boat is in.”
A special price for 10 pounds of heads-on shrimp began that day. I didn’t waste any time getting down to Ocracoke Seafood (owned and operated by The Working Waterman’s Association, a cooperative of Ocracoke Island fishermen), to buy my booty.
As many residents do, I use some of the shrimp right away and freeze the rest to use throughout the year.
The good news is that there should be a healthy supply of fresh shrimp through August and even into the fall.
These days in North Carolina, shrimp are second only to the blue crab in terms of economic impact. Shrimp is the most popular national seafood with the average American consuming 4.1 pounds a year.
But domestic shrimp make up only 10 percent of the national market. What is alarming about the other 90 percent that is imported mostly from Asia and South America is that less than 2 percent of all imported seafood is inspected.
Why is this important? Imported farmed shrimp comes with a whole bevy of contaminants: antibiotics, residues from toxic chemicals that are used to clean the pens, and filth like mouse hair, rat hair, and pieces of insects, says Marianne Cufone, director of the fish program at the nonprofit Food and Water Watch.
Given these unsanitary and toxic conditions in which imported farm-raised shrimp are raised, it is best to avoid all imported shrimp.
On Ocracoke, all the fresh shrimp for sale is wild-caught, reliable and delicious. You can purchase raw shrimp at the Ocracoke Seafood Market on Silver Lake and at Native Seafood on Highway 12.
The following recipe is one of our favorites for using “wild caught” North Carolina shrimp.
1¼ lb. peeled, raw shrimp, cut into pieces
2 Tbs. olive oil
¾ cup finely chopped sweet onion
1 jalapeno, seeds and veins removed, finely minced
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs (see note)
1 egg, beaten
¼ cup mayonnaise
2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
¼ tsp. salt
With a food processor, pulse until the shrimp are reduced to a coarse puree. Remove shrimp to a large bowl.
In a small skillet, sauté the onions in olive oil until they soften. Add the chopped jalapeno and continue cooking for a few minutes.
Add the onions and jalapeno to the shrimp along with the remaining ingredients.
Mix everything together well. Using your hands, form the mixture into medium size patties (about 6 to 8).
Place a large non-stick skillet over high heat and add enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of the pan. When the oil is hot enough to have a drop of water sizzle, add enough burgers to fill the pan leaving enough space in between so they can easily be turned.
Cook over moderate heat until they become firm and lightly browned underneath. Turn them over and continue cooking until they are cooked throughout but still moist and tender inside.
Serve the shrimp burgers on toasted buns with lettuce, sliced vine-ripe tomatoes, sliced sweet onions and tartar sauce (see recipe below).
Note: To make fresh breadcrumbs tear pieces of good-quality, whole-grain French or Italian bread into medium-size pieces and place them into a food processor.
Chop the bread pieces until they are reduced to coarse-textured crumbs.
1 cup mayonnaise
2 Tbs. minced scallion, white and green parts, soaked in cold water for five minutes and drained in a sieve.
¼ cup finely chopped sour pickle
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
¼ tsp. pepper
2 Tbs. freshly squeezed lemon juice
Place all ingredients into a small bowl and mix together well. Refrigerate until serving time.