I'm man enough to admit that I've got nothing on this woman.
Just look at her. Eightysomething and still strong enough to carry a load like me.
I can only hope that the family genes are as reliably hearty when or if I get to that age.
You may know Aunt Rita from the occasional reports that I post here from the Christmas Eve dinner table. We celebrate the traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes in our family, and the extravagant, multi-course, multi-hour meal is always expertly prepared by Rita, Aunt Anna and Cousin Joanie.
Over the years I have prepared most all of the various holiday recipes in my own home, but never Rita's shrimp. And so when charged with preparing an hors d'oeuvre the other evening I figured why not give it a shot.
These are the original. The photo was taken at the Christmas Eve dinner table. Which year I'm not sure, but it hardly matters. Rita's shrimp always look and taste exactly the same, which is to say perfect! In fact, only two dishes on the holiday table NEVER have leftovers: Anna's Baked Clams and Rita's Shrimp.
Considering how extraordinary my aunt's shrimp are, I was more than a little surprised to finally discover her secret to preparing them. Shocked is more like it.
"I don't need to look it up," Rita said when I called to ask for her recipe the other day. "It's only three ingredients. And I couldn't tell you how much to use of each."
It's not the lack of directions — for a recipe that the woman has prepared every Christmas Eve for decades — that shocked me. The cooks in my family often prepare dishes by feel, even those passed down through generations. I'm the same way. I'll write down ingredients and proportions when I know I want to share the recipe on this blog, but even that isn't an exact science around here. Sorry.
What threw me about Rita's shrimp recipe were the ingredients themselves. They just seemed so ordinary.
"I use Bisquick, beer and breadcrumbs, that's it," my aunt told me. "As for the proportions, what can I say, honey? You're on your own."
So this is two cups of Bisquick and a cup of beer. I arrived at these proportions by following the package directions for making pancakes, just not with the egg. (In hindsight, and having consulted with Rita's daughter Cousin Joanie, I would suggest going a little heavier on the dry mix than I did here, and making the batter a bit thicker.)
A whisk does a much better job than a fork and so I always go with that.
Rita's shrimp are always on the large size and so go with the biggest shrimp you can get your hands on. Dip them in the batter...
... then dredge in breadcrumbs (on both sides of course).
Line the coated shrimp on a wax paper-lined tray and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours. (Both Rita and Joanie insist that this step is critical.)
Then fry very quickly in hot olive oil. The trick here is to not overcook the shrimp. I've never had one of my aunt's shrimp that were hard or tough, in other words overcooked. Remember, shrimp cook extremely quickly. I doubt these cooked for more than a minute or two.
Line a plate with paper towels and allow the cooked shrimp to shed some of the frying oil. At this stage I also sprinkled the hot, just-fried shrimp with Kosher salt.
This step is a big variation, and so let me explain. Every time I eat Rita's fried shrimp they're on a dinner plate that includes Aunt Anna's Fish Salad, a traditional Christmas Eve dish. The thing about having both the shrimp and the salad together on the same plate is that I get to dip Rita's plain fried shrimp into the seasoned oils and garlicky juices of Anna's fish salad. Since my shrimp were being served alone I thought a little extra flavor was needed, and so I caramelized some garlic (in olive oil and with a few anchovy filets).
After plating the shrimp I drizzled the garlic and anchovy over them, a little freshly chopped hot pepper, and some chopped parsley.
These shrimp were delicious, but they weren't my aunt's. For those you'll need to find your way to Queens the night of December 24th.
I wouldn't miss it for anything.