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Recipes and Stories

1 July 2013: Shrimp and Rice

Shrimp Pilau with Tomatoes is a Lowcountry summer classic. Photography by John Carrington
One of the great defining rice dishes of Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry cookery is the pilau, (pronounced PIH-low—or, at times, PER-low, PER-loo, or per-LOO). Descended from the rice-based cuisines of West Africa, from whence the Lowcountry’s rice culture and most of its rice-growing slaves had come, a pilau is less a recipe than a technique. There are hundreds of variations, including the famed Carolina Pilau, made with chicken or game birds, and the euphoniously named Hoppin’ John, made with field peas.

Unhappily, the pilau technique is all too often misunderstood.

For example, ever since Italy’s risotti became popular in America, pilaus have often been likened to them. While it’s true that both are made with rice, are technique-driven concepts, and usually begin by briefly sautéing the rice in a little fat of some kind, beyond that, they have absolutely nothing in common.

Risotti are made with fat, short-grained rice and the cooking liquid is gradually stirred into it, a little at a time. In fact, the cook almost never stops stirring. Pilaus on the other hand are made with long grain rice and the cooking liquid is added all at once. The rice is given a single stir, and after that, is never stirred again.

In the end, a properly made risotto consists of distinct, al dente grains of rice held together by a creamy sauce. A properly made pilau consists of tender rice that is fluffy, distinct, and separate, with no binding sauce. Those separate grains are so critical in fact that the rice is washed before cooking to remove as much of the surface starch as possible.

Perhaps pilaus are presented as similar to risotti because the two are such important, defining concepts in their respective cuisines, and the latter have become so popular that most people know about them. But as you see, the two techniques and resulting dishes are so different that these comparisons are more misleading than helpful.

You will need to have the right kind of rice. Carolina Gold, the famed Lowcountry rice from which the region’s pilaus were first made, is a mild, nutty, long-grain rice. Because its grains are a little shorter and fatter than most long-grain rice, the risotto technique can be used with it, though the results are never quite as satisfactory as they are with the short, fat-grained rice for which the technique was created. Most other long-grain rice varieties are too slender and brittle to stand up to the constant stirring: the end result is not distinct, al dente grains enrobed in a creamy sauce but more of a mushy porridge.

Conversely, should the pilau technique be applied to a short grained Italian rice such as Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano, the end result would be an unsatisfying cross between creamy risotto and fluffy pilau—in short, a mushy porridge.

The nicest difference between the two techniques is that pilaus are a lot less work, and that makes them ideal for summer cooking. Here’s a particularly lovely summer pilau that will help you master the technique.

Shrimp Pilau

Because the famed Carolina Gold was grown right next to salt marshes teeming with brown inlet shrimp, shrimp pilau seems an especially appropriate way of illustrating the proper execution of the technique, especially since those shrimp are seasonal in summer. Most old recipes called for the shrimp to cook in the rice for the entire time, but while this does add more flavor, it makes the shrimp tough. For maximum flavor without sacrificing the shrimp’s texture, modern cooks use broth made from the shells for flavor and add the shrimp at the end.

When tomatoes are out of season, or if the fresh tomatoes available to you are not up to par, you can substitute canned whole tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped, with their juices, but it will never taste a lovely and fresh as it will be made with freshly-harvested vine-ripe tomatoes.

Serves 4

1¼ pounds (headless weight) shrimp
4 ounces (about 4 slices) extra-thick-sliced bacon or pancetta, diced
1 medium onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, stem, seeds, and membranes removed, chopped
1 large rib celery, strung and diced small
1 large clove garlic, lightly crushed, peeled and minced
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 pod cayenne or other hot pepper, left whole
1 cup raw rice, washed and drained (see Carolina-Style Rice, page 00, for the method)
2 cups chopped fresh, ripe tomatoes, blanched, peeled, and seeded
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
10-12 fresh basil leaves

1. Peel the shrimp, completely removing the tails, and reserve the shells. Cover and refrigerate the shrimp. Put the shells into a saucepan with 3 cups water. Bring them slowly to a simmer over medium heat, watching carefully as it will foam up and tend to boil over. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced to 1 cup. Strain, discarding the shells, and set the broth aside.

2. Put the bacon in a deep skillet or flameproof casserole over medium heat. Fry until the fat is rendered and the bacon is browned. Spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of fat, add the onion, pepper, and celery, and sauté, tossing occasionally, until softened but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, bay leaf, and parsley and toss until fragrant, about half a minute.

3. Add the rice and stir until it’s evenly coated with fat and beginning to toast, about a minute. Add the tomatoes, shell broth, and hot pepper, and season well with salt and pepper. Stir once, let it come back to a boil, and reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting. Cover tightly and simmer 12 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed.

4. Carefully fold the top grains of rice under to the bottom. Don’t stir—fold it. Spread the shrimp over it, cover tightly, and the steam build for a minute. Turn off the heat and let sit, tightly covered, until the rice is tender and the shrimp are pink and cooked through about 8 to 10 minutes. Scatter the basil over it and fluff with a fork, tossing to mix in the shrimp, and serve at once.
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