The flavour is in…. the stock
Let me just say first that risotto needs to be stirred gently and continuously for about 15 /20 minutes and no, you cannot make a risotto without stirring. As you stir a risotto and water it with your prepared stock, the rice grains absorb the stock and swell, at the same time releasing and yielding up their starch to create the characteristic creamy binding sauce – provided you are using the right kind of rice, of course. You cannot achieve the creamy consistency without stirring, and risotto is a risotto only if you follow the classic procedure to obtain the classic result. However delicious the dish you make without stirring, it will be a a great rice dish, but not a risotto.
More than with other risottos, where you can add flavour to a vegetable stock by cooking the vegetable in with the rice, a good shrimp or seafood risotto depends entirely on the quality of the stock used in making it. You would only ruin seafood like calamari, shell fish or shrimp if you cook them in with the rice for 15/20 minutes. They would end up tough and tasteless, having contributed all their flavour to the stock. Fish and shellfish should be pre-cooked briefly and added to the risotto only for the last 2 or 3 minutes to warm through. So if you want your risotto rice to be flavoursome, you need a very tasty stock to start with, otherwise it will be bland and dull.
The flavour is in…. the heads
There is lots of good shrimp flavour in the carcass, and most of all there is flavour in shrimp heads. The best shrimp stock of my life we made in Charleston, South Carolina, a few years back when I was there running classes to raise funds for the wonderful Louie’s Kidscharity fighting childhood obesity. Rather intimidated by stories of how demanding I was when shopping, the hosts of a cooking class for 12 making a fish based meal, took me direct to the waterfront to buy the ingredients we needed for the class. We entered a sort of warehouse, a long narrow room which was open at the back onto the quay where they were unloading fish and shellfish from the boats and shrimp trawlers. There was a counter where we were meant to stop and I stepped a little to one side of it so as to get a good view of the fish down the far end. As I peered down the room craning my neck for a better view someone came and placed a “No Entry” barrier six inches in front of me, hint hint.
Then I heard a voice:
Would you like a closer look ma’am?” – an observant fellow!
“Oooh yes please!”
And he removed the barrier.
As we walked down checking out the fish, choosing which ones we’d buy for our baked stuffed fish main course, I spied a huge mini-mountain of shrimp heads, a bunch of men sitting by it separating heads from bodies and tossing the heads onto the pile.
“What are you planning to do with those?”
“Throw ’em away ma’am, no one wants them.”
“Oh but I want them, can I have some?”
“Sure, how much do you want?”
“Well, what do they cost?”
“Nothing ma’am, not even the cats want them”
So I drew with my hands the outline of a standard pillow case, and he looked around, found a plastic bag even larger than that and filled it to the brim. Which put a very big smile on my face!
Feeling grateful for the foolishness of people who don’t want the heads on when they buy the shrimp, we took my prize home to cook, along with two large and extremely fresh flounder.
I tell you, that stock, and the risotto we made with it, were out-of-this world sensational, one of the memorable meals of my life.
To prepare Mantis Shrimp
I cook the Mantis shrimp in a dry pan, covered. The flesh is soft and delicate and I think cooking dry works best to keep the body intact and give you some chance of extracting it in one piece. Sometimes they give off a lot of water sometimes none at all. If they give up some of their liquid, save it and add last thing to the risotto. I grill first on one side and then the other until they stop being translucent and the colour of the shells and the large spots on the tail has changed.
To shell them I use kitchen scissors. I turn them flat “belly” side up and cut (getting pronged along the way by those hard pointy bits) all down each side, from tail to head, to expose the flesh. Then I pull the head away from the body.
I do this over a bowl to catch the juices. For the photo I put them against the dark background of the pan I cooked them in because I think it helps you to see better.
I then carefully lift away the top and bottom of the carcass, pushing gently with my thumb to free the flesh. Keeping the mantis shrimp whole while shelling is not easy as the flesh is so delicate and fragile. If it matters to you to have them whole for presentation then buy a few more than you need, to allow for a few not quite working out. In the photo above the mantis shrimp freed of its shell is on the left, the discarded shell and head on the right.
Any bits of shell, carcass and heads all go into the stock pot to add more flavour still.
To Make Shrimp stock
I decided to make a shrimp risotto because I had some shrimp stock in the freezer. Any time I cook with shrimps or prawn I save the shells and put them in a bag in the freezer, then when I have time I put them into a stock pot with a bay leaf or two, cover with water, bring to a boil and just leave to simmer for 30 minutes or so. You can add mild leek or onion but I don’t usually- I use a scoop strainer to fish out the shrimp heads and carcasses in batches and press down with a wooden spoon to get as much liquid out as I can. I save the strained stock in the fridge if I plan to use within a day or two, or in the freezer otherwise. I also make mantis shrimp stock when they are small and cheap. I just snip each one in half with scissors and proceed as above, but with mantis shrimp I put the heads and carcasses into a food mill to extract every last drop of the subtle flavour and add it to the strained stock.
Having decided it was shrimp risotto day I went to the market to check out the shrimp. The thing that looked best and freshest to me was the mantis shrimp. Mantis shrimp are my favourite seafood. Sweet as crab, a flavour that is reminiscent of lobster, tasty in a subtle delicate way and with an incomparable texture – not at all stringy or dry, very silky and melt in the mouth. The very hard carcass is full of sharp bony bits and the little monsters are hard to clean. Some say they take too much effort for the small amount of sweet flesh yielded, but not me! You can use standard shrimp for this recipe but just in case you can get Mantis Shrimp I have put instructions on how to prepare them above. Many recipes and many cooks, leave them whole in their shells but they are so difficult to extract from their shells by hand that I think this is almost rude to your dinner guests.
Canocchie are also go by the name of “pannocchie” and “cicale” in other parts of Italy.
Recipe for Mantis Shrimp Risotto
WHAT YOU NEED FOR FOUR SERVINGS
350g (4 and a half cups) Vialone Nano rice
1 litre (generous 4 cups) of shrimp stock
12 mantis shrimp
a small glass (1 cup) dry white wine
3 tbsp. Extra Virgin olive oil
50g (scant 2 ounces) unsalted butter
2 shallots or a small onion
2 teaspoons concentrated tomato paste diluted in hot water or 2 tbsp. tomato “passata”
Salt and pepper
Optional freshly chopped flat leaf parsley to garnish.
WHAT YOU DO
Dice the shallots finely. Place 3 tbsp. olive oil and a good pat of butter in a wide pot on low heat with the shallots, and cook for 5 minutes.
Add all the rice and stir – the idea is to coat each grain in a thin veil of oil, so the grains remain separate within the creamy texture. When the rice is opaque and making a rustling sound, add all the wine and turn the heat down.
Stir while you let the rice absorb the wine over a low flame. Set the shrimp stock over moderate heat.
Once the wine has been absorbed, set your timer for 15 minutes (using Carnaroli or Arborio rice you would set it for 18 minutes). Turn up the heat under the risotto pot and the shellfish stock and maintain a moderate to lively heat for both throughout.
Despite what most cook books say, I like to keep just a veil of water above the level of rice for the first 10 minutes: that way the rice at the top of the pot cooks at the same rate as the wetter rice on the bottom. Add hot stock to the rice a ladle or two at a time, enough to keep it just covered in liquid. Stir almost continuously, from bottom to top as well as round and round to ensure even cooking and to release the starches.
At about 11 minutes on the timer add the diluted tomato paste if using – it is just there for a little colour – and start tasting to see how the cooking is coming along. From this point on I start to add less and less stock every time, to avoid the risk of forcing the rice to absorb more stock than it can take, making it lose its bite and resilience.
When the timer goes, take the pot off the heat.
Place your prepared cooked and shelled mantis shrimp in a steamer basket to warm up over the boiling stock while you finish the risotto. Add water if there is not much stock left.
Now add the diced cold butter to the risotto and beat it in using a fast whipping motion. The finished risotto should have a nice resilient bite to the rice, with the rice grains separate and coated in a creamy sauce. Remember it should be liquid enough that you are able to pur it on to the plates from the pot. If it seems too dry add some more stock and stir it in.
Stir in the chopped parsley if using. Make up portions on flat plates not in bowls. Place mantis shrimp on each portion and garnish with flat leaf parsley. Eat without waiting as, like pasta, the rice continues to cook on the plate in retained heat,and you don’t want to eat it overcooked