This is part a monthly series about the food of the N.C. coast. Our Coast’s Food is about the culinary traditions and history of N.C. coast. The series covers the history of the region’s food, profiles the people who grow it and cook it, offers cooking tips — how hot should the oil be to fry fish? — and passes along some of our favorite recipes. Send along any ideas for stories you would like us to do or regional recipes you’d like to share. If there’s a story behind the recipe, we’d love to hear it.
Blend together buttermilk and hot sauce in a shallow baking dish. Add shrimp, cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Blend together flour and seafood breader or cornmeal in a shallow baking dish.
Place a heavy, cast iron skillet over medium heat. Pour oil to a depth of 2 inches into the skillet. Insert an deep-fry thermometer into the oil.
While oil is heating, remove shrimp from refrigerator and place next to the flour mixture in an assembly-line fashion close to the skillet. Line a serving dish with paper towels near the skillet, as well.
When the oil in the skillet reaches 375 degrees, drain a handful of shrimp and drop into the flour mixture. Lightly dust shrimp with breading and then place shrimp in hot oil, being careful not to crowd the skillet. Cook shrimp for about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove shrimp to the paper-towel-lined platter. Salt before serving.
Source: Chef Eric Gephart, The Chef’s Academy, Morrisville
Place all ingredients in a medium-size bowl and stir mixture until combined. Keep sauce refrigerated. Makes 1 cup.
Source: Chef Eric Gephart, The Chef’s Academy, Morrisville
A lacy, crisp, brown crust embracing sweet, tender seaside freshness. Fried shrimp is perhaps the most beloved seafood dish on the N.C. coast.
When hot summer temperatures summon swimsuit-clad crowds to the beach, fried shrimp are what shore-goers crave after playing in the waves.
Many head to seafood houses, grand restaurants boasting all-you-can-eat popcorn shrimp specials or the lightly breaded morsels called “Calabash-style” fried shrimp.
Despite fried shrimp’s simplicity preparing them at home is an intimidating thought. The process, however, is not difficult, and the results are oh so satisfying.
“It’s savory, it’s salty, it’s sweet all at the same time. Once you start eating them, you can’t hardly wait for the next bite,” professional chef Eric Gephart said.
Gephart is the lead instructor at The Chef’s Academy cooking school in Morrisville, but years of living and cooking on the N.C. coast gave Gephart the same appreciation for fried shrimp had by generations before him.
Deep-frying food dates back to the ancient Egyptians, and ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed shrimp, but, according to The Food Timeline history research service , “16th century Portuguese cooks may have been the first to deep-fry batter-dipped shrimp. The recipe was inspired by Catholic dietary regulations requiring the abstinence from meat during certain days.”
Portuguese missionaries probably shared fried shrimp recipes with the Japanese, who may have named their fried shrimp specialty tempura after fast days described in Latin as the quatuor tempora, The Food Timeline cites from the book “Food” by Waverley Root (Smithmark, 1980).
As settlers populated the New World, fried food made its mark in America, especially in the 1900s. Although some coastal N.C. natives refused to eat shrimp, considering them akin to insects, fried seafood was popular in the South. In in the mid-20th century, Calabash became the place perhaps most famous for fried shrimp.
Locals tell of a stormy night in the 1940s when then-radio-star, James Frances Durante, better known as singer and actor Jimmy Durante, and crew were stranded in Calabash. Durante, Calabash lore claims, loved the town so much that he returned often, and he ended his radio and television shows with the line “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are,” a tribute to a Calabash cook named Lucy Coleman at Coleman’s restaurant, still in business today.
Durante later claimed Mrs. Calabash was a nickname for his wife. No matter. The town’s fried shrimp caught on and continues to inspire professional cooks like Gephart.
The Hillsborough native grew up vacationing on the Carolina coast. Dad would take the family directly to fishermen to purchase fresh seafood. After training at the acclaimed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Gephart moved to Wrightsville Beach, where for a time he owned a highly regarded seafood restaurant named Buoy 32.
Gephart relies on the Calabash style, understood among chefs and diners to mean lightly breaded.
Most important, Gephart said, is using wild, fresh-from-the-water shrimp. “They’re just so darned sweet,” he said.
The chef prefers smaller shrimp for frying. He thinks they’re more tender and taste better than larger shrimp. At the market, ask for 21-to-25-count shrimp, meaning a pound contains 21 to 25 shrimp. Plan on a quarter- to a half-pound of shrimp per serving.
Smaller shrimp may eliminate the need for “deveining,” the removal of the gritty, black intestinal tract that runs down a shrimp’s back, Gephart said. The “vein” is less apparent in small shrimp.
Gephart briefly marinates shrimp bound for the frying pan in a combination of buttermilk and hot sauce, which add flavor and whose acids tenderize the shrimp, he said. He lightly dusts the shrimp in a combination of flour and cornmeal or flour and commercial seafood breader. Gephart likes North Carolina’s House Autry brand. Too much breading masks shrimp’s flavor.
“You want to be able to see through the breading and see the actual shrimp,” he advised.
Fry shrimp in a heavy, deep cast-iron skillet to retain heat, Gephart suggested. Use canola oil, as it can stand high heats for long periods of time, he explained. Invest in a deep-fry thermometer, available at cookware stores and some supermarkets, as the oil should remain at 375 degrees during frying.
Keeping the stove free of splatters is impossible; frying on a gas cooker outside avoids an indoor mess.
Just a few minutes of frying are required to cook shrimp through. Because shrimp cook so quickly, a helper is handy. As one person removes cooked shrimp from the hot oil, another person breads and adds shrimp to the hot oil.
Once finished, fried shrimp make a delicious soft/crisp element on sandwiches, salads, pasta and risotto, but Gephart doesn’t let his creative chef side get the better of his fried shrimp.
“I just set them out on a big platter,” he said, “with a little tartar sauce.”
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