Nutrition Contributor: Caroline Coker
I was born in Mobile, Alabama, but also into Louisiana’s seductive food culture, as my biological father grew up in the restaurant business in New Orleans, and my aunts and uncles were (and a few still are) in the fishing and shrimping industry, working in Venice (not Italy), Grand Isle, and on the eastern shore of Louisiana, where many still reside today. I have caught shrimp off the docks of the bay and have been trawling with my relatives, enjoying fresh Gulf seafood as a birthright. With my mother’s roots stemming from Georgia, Florida and Alabama, and with farming pulsating through her family veins, I feel I have the best of all worlds when it comes to Southern cuisine, and the knowledge to go with it. My mother (which she passed down to me), is a huge proponent of sourcing and cooking sustainable seafood. Unfortunately, ninety percent of shrimp consumed in the United States is imported from Asia, possibly in unhealthy conditions, and Oceana is currently calling for a Presidential task force on seafood fraud to require traceability of shrimp to protect consumers’ right to buy legally and ethically caught shrimp. It is very important to stay informed about credible resources, especially when not catching the seafood you are eating yourself.
Also, there is a misconception about food below the Mason Dixon line. Not all Southern cuisine contains butter, cheese and is heavy cream and lard laden- though I’m not saying indulging once in awhile is a bad thing. However, when you can get produce fresh from the field, and shrimp right out of the Gulf or bay, you are not only supporting your local producers, you are getting the highest quality, and freshest food to consume, a win for all.
Shrimp are one of the most valuable and tasty seafoods found in our coastal waters. The primary species of Florida shrimp harvested are brown, white, pink, royal red and rock shrimp. Each has its own season, is prevalent at different depths of the Gulf and salinity levels, and is found in different locations around Florida. Brown shrimp are ready for harvest in early June, while the white shrimp harvest is September through October. Pink shrimp are usually most abundant in the spring. But, with a current quota of under 350,000 pounds for the entire Gulf of Mexico, royal red shrimp are my utmost favorite.
I discovered royal red shrimp in the late 1990’s, as my stepfathers business is in Pensacola, my second home. Since I can remember, I have been brought along on shopping excursions to Joe Patti’s Seafood, a local institution founded by Anna and Joe Patti in the early 1930’s that mainly sold high quality fish, and is currently owned by their son Frank. I have fond childhood memories of enjoying the weekends when my stepfather was on call for the hospital, grilling or boiling shrimp together after spending a day on the boat, tubing on the bayou behind our home.
Though shrimp have been consumed by humans since prehistoric times, royal red shrimp were discovered by the United States government in the 1950’s, and the species were also being developed as an experimental fishery in support from the Bureau of Fisheries, the federal agency that later became NOAA Fisheries. Oceana reports that the commercial fishery of royal red shrimp officially began in 1962 in the Gulf of Mexico, but shrimper’s like Frank Patti were already in the works catching them by then. Currently, Frank Patti in his 80’s no longer shrimps, but he still holds high court in his special spot by the speaker behind the counter of the bustling waterfront store, calling out the numbers of his customers clamoring to make a purchase. Joe Patti’s sees over 100,000 visitors each month, more during peak seasons, and has grown to offer a gourmet deli, prepared foods to go, and has one of the best sushi bars in town. Patti has chosen to import seafood from all over the world, though he does still provide fresh local seafood from Florida Gulf waters, and like me, he still believes that the Gulf shrimp are the best. Again, ask and verify where your shrimp is coming from before you make your purchase.
Royal Reds (Pleoticus Robustus) are the most delicate of our native shrimp species, and have the softest texture with the sweetest flavor, but also cook twice as quickly as other shrimp. They are vibrant red, naturally salty, and never see the light of day, as they live in the cold dark deep water of the sloping bottom of the Gulf where it drops abruptly off the continental shelf. Depths from 800 feet to over a half mile down are the home to these crustaceans. Due to being caught miles from shore and at these depths, fishermen use the IQF (individual quick frozen) method to haul them home. You can find royal reds early March through July from the Florida Panhandle to the Florida Keys, and on restaurant menus like The Shrimp Shack in Seaside, Florida, where they are steamed and served with clarified drawn butter.
Grilled Royal Red Shrimp Kabobs
¼ cup parsley, finely chopped
2 pounds (20-20) Royal Red shrimp, peeled, deveined, tail in tact
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp pepper, freshly ground
2 large yellow bell peppers, cut into 2 inch pieces
1 large sweet onion, cut into 2 inch pieces
1 container grape tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, crushed and minced
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Splash of dry white wine
Soak wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes or use stainless. Mix the parsley, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and splash of wine in a small bowl. Thread the tomatoes, onion, bell pepper and shrimp alternately on the skewers and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Brush with the olive oil mixture and arrange on a platter. Chill, covered, for 1 hour.Preheat the grill to medium heat. Arrange the skewers on the grill rack and grill for 3 minutes per side, turning once, until the shrimp are no longer translucent.
Note: Due to their delicate texture, the cooking time for Royal Reds must be cut in half. Don’t overcook them or they will turn to much.
Tip: Try my Basil Pesto recipe on the side with this dish.
Note: Edward Wood of Wood’s Fisheries in Port St. Joe, Fla., knows more about wild shrimp than anyone in this region, and would be the point of contact for purchase. You can find his shrimp at Maria’s Seafood in Pensacola. Wood’s, founded in 1860, is a fifth-generation business at the forefront of the movement to promote environmentally friendlier wild-caught shrimp from American waters, netted directly from their natural environment. Wood’s is one of the first domestic shrimp producers to use Trace Register, a global database of catch information and product life history – from source to sale. They define what true traceability is, 100% transparency.
Contributor Caroline Coker was raised on 30A, and has been living in South Walton, Florida since the age of five. She is passionate about health and fitness, and graduated in Nutritional Science from The University of Alabama in August 2015. You will find more of her work here at 30AEats.com on Beach Eats, recipes that she is working on for her first cookbook. Caroline also handles the social media for GulfCoastRestaurants.com.