Recipe: Shrimp Cocktail with Jalapeño Fennel Vinaigrette
My love of the American shrimp cocktail remains strong. It’s a clunky but vibrant dish, of boiled shrimp, hopefully not too boiled, dipped in an indescribable red sauce, made primarily from ketchup, horseradish, and Worcestershire sauce. Thinking of it brings back a flood of memories, mostly good ones, of raucous parties (speaking of boiled) that my parents used to throw in the 1960s (at one of the more entertaining ones, at least from my point of view, a golf pro friend of my father’s wound up crawling on the floor, growling like a lion, peed in his pants, and then passed out—possibly from one too many dips into the shrimp cocktail).
At our house, the shrimp was piled high. The extravagance of it drove me wild and unleashed the glutton in me like few other foods of the time. I’d sneak out of my room, making my way through all the go-go-baubled ladies and grease ball dressed men to grab a handful of shrimp, while also scooping up a good portion of the red sauce in a paper cup before disappearing back to where I belonged.
Shrimp cocktail has had various retro rebirths since that era, and I’m always excited to see it on a buffet or at a friend’s party. I had a craving for it the other night, so I went out and bought some shrimp, figuring I had the stuff to make the sauce in my refrigerator. In fact I had neither ketchup, horseradish, nor Worcestershire (what kind of unruly household do I run?), but being the culinary snot that I’ve now become, I did happen to have on hand a fennel bulb, a green jalapeño pepper, and a bunch of fresh tarragon, so that’s what I cooked up instead. It doesn’t have much tradition behind it, but it’s really good.
A note about jalapeño peppers: I’ve found that the heat from these peppers varies a lot. Sometimes they’re burning hot, sometimes so mild they have almost no kick whatever. The one I used was sort of halfway between, so I used the whole thing, with seeds, to produce an only moderately spicy result. I think the best thing to do is to taste a piece, with a few seeds, and determine what you’re dealing with before adding it to your dish.
Shrimp Cocktail with Jalapeño Fennel Vinaigrette
(Serves 4 as a first course)
2 or 3 small cloves fresh spring garlic, thinly sliced
1 green jalapeño pepper, minced, with its seeds (see note above)
½ teaspoon Sambuca
¼ teaspoon fennel seeds, toasted and finely ground
The juice and zest from 1 small lemon
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 fresh bay leaf
1½ pounds large shrimp, shelled and deveined, leaving the tails on
1 pint grape tomatoes, cut in half
1 small fennel bulb, very thinly sliced
About 10 large tarragon sprigs, the leaves lightly torn
In a small bowl, mix together the garlic, jalapeño, Sambuca, fennel seeds, lemon juice and zest, and about 3 tablespoons of olive oil, adding a good amount of salt. Let it sit to develop flavor while you get on with the recipe.
Set up a large pot of water. Add the bay leaf and a generous amount of salt, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the shrimp, and boil them until just tender, probably about 2 minutes, depending on their size. Scoop the shrimp from the water with a large strainer, and lay them out on paper towels, separating them a bit, to soak up excess liquid.
Place the shrimp in a serving bowl. Add the tomatoes and the fennel. Pour on the dressing, and give everything a good toss. Refrigerate for about ½ hour, and then add the tarragon and toss again, tasting for seasoning. The jalapeño should have become more pronounced, and all the flavors will have mingled nicely. Serve cold.