February, it turns out, is shrimp month. As if our store doesn’t sell plenty of shrimp as it is, we’ll be demo-ing lots of shrimp throughout the month. Fine with me: I love shrimp.
To some people, February means Valentine’s Day and two presidents’ birthdays and, possibly, a long holiday weekend as a result. To me, February usually means two other things: Chinese New Year and Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras season, which begins right after the 12th Night of Christmas on January 6th (the Feast of the Epiphany), typically lasts an average of six or seven weeks (but only four this year) and comes to a climax the last weekend before Fat Tuesday itself, known around the world as Carnival time and the last opportunity to overindulge before the penitent (and diet?) season begins on Ash Wednesday. Chinese New Year, on the other hand – or perhaps I should say the Asian Lunar New Year – occurs some time between late January and mid-February.
In 2016, the two holidays coincide. Carnival weekend not only features the lead-up to Fat Tuesday on February 9th but also Chinese New Year on Monday, February 8th (customarily celebrated in Asia as a two-week affair) and Super Bowl Sunday on February 7th. So: you have something ending, something new beginning, and an annual championship … all of which means party, party, PARTY!!! And every party requires just the right food, preferably lots of different things that can be easily eaten out of hand and nearly as easily prepared.
Firecracker Shrimp, served skewered on toothpicks as an appetizer, certainly works for that purpose. Doesn’t matter if you look at this as Szechuan style, Hunan style, or New Orleans style, it’s still mighty tongue toasting. The recipe here uses five kinds of hot peppers in different forms: cayenne, hot chili oil, jalapeño, bird chilies, and Indonesian sambal. Louisianans and Asians both love their hot stuff and their shrimp, although I like to think that the Gulf of Mexico produces tastier crustaceans. The Gulf shrimp recommended come frozen in 1-pound bags (at least at our store) and are already peeled and cleaned, ready to cook once they’re thawed and blotted of excess moisture. The prep and cooking itself takes barely 10 minutes – all you need is a wok with a steady, reliable heat source beneath it and good-quality peanut oil. Even an electric wok will do (West Bend makes a good one).
How many people will a pound of Firecracker Shrimp serve? That depends entirely on how much your guests love shrimp and/or hot and spicy seafood, plus what else you have on the table. At my house, a pound of 31-40 count shrimp would only serve 3-4 people, even as an appetizer – but if you have platters of other things, too (or a few guests who don’t like spicy-hot dishes), it could stretch to 6 or 8 or a dozen. Meaning: keep the rest of your menu in mind. BTW, you can also skip the toothpicks and serve this as an entrée over cooked white long-grain rice (try basmati or jasmine rice); there’s enough for 3 to 4 people served that way.
PS – When you get the green onion, even if it’s the organic variety, remember to trim and rinse the onion really, really well under cool running water, then wash that knife immediately in hot, soapy water; there have simply been too many E. coli contamination incidents to do otherwise. Better safe than sorry, right? Then thoroughly pat dry your green onion before slicing it. It’s all good then. Now go to it!
Firecracker Shrimp serves a bunch of folks as an appetizer
1 pound bag of 31-40 count Gulf shrimp, already peeled and deveined
1 cup white cornstarch
1 tbsp. Chinese Five Spice powder
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. garlic powder
½ tsp. onion powder
½ tsp. ground coriander seed
½ tsp. ground ginger or galangal powder
1 tsp. Chinese style hot chili oil
1 jalapeño pepper, cored and minced
1 red Thai bird chili + 1 green Thai bird chili, both trimmed and minced
1 green onion, thoroughly washed, dried, trimmed and thinly sliced
½ cup Chun’s sweet and sour sauce
½ cup La Choy sweet and sour sauce
1 heaping tbsp. Sambal Oelek (Indonesian chili sauce/paste)
Lemon wedges for garnish
- Thaw the shrimp overnight in the refrigerator; when ready to prepare, remove from bag, drain, and pat dry the shrimp on layers of paper towels. Let sit while you fix the cornstarch mix. Measure cornstarch into a glass measuring cup, then add the five-spice powder, cayenne, salt, garlic and onion powders, coriander, and ginger or galangal. Mix well with a fork, then empty seasoned starch into a gallon-size plastic zipper freezer-storage bag. Add the shrimp a handful at a time, tossing them around in the closed bag before you add more, until all the shrimp have been thoroughly coated with the cornstarch mix. Leave them there until you get the wok and oils heated.
- In a large wok, combine ⅓ cup peanut oil with the hot chili oil; set wok over medium heat and let it warm up while you fix the sweet and sour sauce. Add the Chun’s, then the La Choy sauces to the glass measuring cup; add a heaping tablespoon of the Sambal Oelek (or similar Indonesian/Asian chili paste/sauce) and mix well. Add the minced hot peppers and sliced scallion (green onion), then mix again.
- Turn up heat beneath the wok to medium high. When the oil reaches 325 degrees F. on your oil or candy thermometer, add the shrimp, quickly stir-frying only a handful at a time and removing them with a wire skimmer once they’re golden brown; drain on more paper towels until you’ve cooked all the shrimp, then turn down the heat to medium and stir in the sweet and sour mix with a wooden spoon. Throw in all the cooked shrimp and quickly toss until thoroughly coated, then remove with a slotted spoon to a serving bowl or plate. Serve immediately, with lemon wedges on a separate plate. Have toothpicks in a shot glass ready for guests to spear the shrimp, then enjoy!
Beverage recommendation: Dixie, Abita or JAX beer would certainly work, for that New Orleans touch. So would a semi-dry but still fruity and flirty Riesling wine, perhaps a German or Alsatian kabinett or spätlese level in dryness – or, for that matter, a semi-dry amontillado sherry on the rocks with a wedge of lime. And for those who need something sweet, well … there’s always plum wine. Cheers!
Firecracker photo courtesy of Howie Le via Wikimedia Commons and Flickr; Mardi Gras beads shot courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.