Recipes and Stories

6 June 2011 Shrimp Paste

June 6, 2011

Tags: Brown Creek Shrimp, Historical Cooking, Southern Cooking, Lowcountry Cooking

A traditional Shrimp Paste appears in my book Classical Southern Cooking
One of most anticipated moments in the gastronomical life of Charleston and Savannah is the return of the small but deeply flavorful brown shrimp to the briny creeks that lace the Lowcountry’s marshes. Simply poached in their shells and served with melted butter, cocktail sauce, or homemade garlic mayonnaise, or sautéed in butter and ladled over a bed of snowy hominy grits, they have no equal, even among the fattest and sweetest Adriatic prawns.

Another great classic of Lowcountry tea and cocktail tables is this simple pâté of pulverized shrimp and butter –

“Shrimp Paste

Run a quart of boiled and picked shrimp through the grinder. Then place in saucepan with salt, pepper, mace, and two heaping tablespoons of butter. Heat thoroughly, and put into molds. Pressing down hard with a spoon, and pouring melted butter over the top. Put in refrigerator, and when cold, slice and serve. An excellent hors d’oeuvre, or an addition to tomato salad.”

– Harriet Ross Colquitt, The Savannah Cook Book (1933)

It’s a very old conserve that long predates Mrs. Colquitt, known in old English and early American books as –

“POTTED SHRIMPS, OR PRAWNS.

Let the fish be quite freshly boiled, shell them quickly, and just before they are put into the mortar, chop them a little with a very sharp knife; pound them perfectly with a quantity of fresh butter, mace, and cayenne.

Shrimps (unshelled), 2 quarts; butter, 2 to 4 oz.; mace, 1 small saltspoonful; cayenne, 1/3 as much.

– Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845).

From the Lowcountry in the same era, we have Miss Rutledge’s rather sketchy version –

“To Pot Shrimps.

Pick the shrimps (after they are boiled) from the shells; beat them well in a mortar, and put as much melted butter to them as will make them of the proper consistence to be pressed compactly together; add pepper, salt, mace, and nutmeg to the taste; put the mixture into small pans, and pour melted butter over them about a quarter of an inch thick. If wanted for immediate use, grated bread may be added.”

– Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife (1847).

Mrs. Colquitt’s tablespoon was a kitchen spoon that was larger than the standard measuring implement of our day. She’s calling for about the same amount of butter as Miss Acton. Her logic in reheating the paste is that it helped prolong its shelf life once potted, though refrigeration had made it an unnecessary caution by her day, and interestingly, the older recipes don’t mention it.

Regardless of its provenance, shrimp paste remains a staple throughout the Lowcountry, though today there’s not a single cook left in the region who would make it with a meat grinder, let alone mortar and pestle. Both methods have given way to the food processor. The old ways perhaps did yield a more interesting paste, but the machine makes such short work of it that the sacrifices in authenticity and texture seem well worth it.

All this came to mind because those little brown shrimp have arrived, and shrimp paste seemed just the thing for a recent late Sunday silver-and-linen reception. Here’s how I made it, from Classical Southern Cooking.

Shrimp Paste
Serves 6 as a first course, or 20 for cocktails or tea

1½ pounds cooked shrimp, peeled
¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 tablespoons grated shallots or yellow onion
Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill
1 blade mace, crushed to a powder, or whole nutmeg in a grater, optional
Ground cayenne pepper
Crisp toast points or Melba toasts

1. Fit the bowl of the processor with a steel blade and put in the shrimp. Cover and pulse until coarsely ground.
2. Add the butter, shallots, a large pinch of salt, and a dash each of cayenne, white pepper, and mace or nutmeg if liked. Process until the mixture forms a paste. Don’t over-process it to a mousse consistency: there should still be some texture. Taste and adjust the salt, pepper, cayenne, and mace. Pulse a few times to mix the seasonings.
3. Lightly butter a 3-cup metal mold, or two smaller molds, or a small loaf pan. Press the paste firmly into it, making sure there are no pockets of trapped air. Cover with a plate or plastic wrap and chill for several hours until firm. Alternatively, pack the paste into crocks, cover with melted clarified butter, and chill until needed.
4. To un-mold, stand the mold in a basin of hot water for 1 minute. Loosen the edges with a knife, and invert the mold over a serving plate—the paste should come out with a couple of firm taps on the top of the mold. Smooth any gaps with a spatula and let it stand until it’s soft enough to spread. If the paste was stored in crocks, serve it directly from the crock without un-molding it. Serve with toast or use as a spread of tea sandwiches.