There are two very different species of Nordic shrimp: the tiny, sweet-fleshed Baltic shrimp (Palacemon adspersus) caught in the fjords and inlets of southern Scandinavia, and the ten-times bigger North Sea prawn (Pandalus borealis) caught in deep northern waters.
Baltic shrimp are caught in low waters; often you can catch them from the beach in bug, light nets. It’s a favorite pastime on summer evenings for children and playful parents. Half of the shrimp caught this way are often a different species, the brown shrimp (Crangon crangon) which will not turn red on cooking but are delicious just the same, especially if you have caught them yourself. Shrimp must be very much alive, wriggling all their little thin legs, and jumping around in the crate; if they are lazy they are almost dead and not good to eat. The color is mousy grey, turning to baby pink when cooked.
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These Baltic shrimp are traded alive from early summer to September. Freshly boiled, tiny shrimp, still a little bit tepid, are an affordable luxury. If you cannot get them fresh, the large North Sea prawns are a good choice.
Buying and storing
All around the globe, deep-sea prawns live in cool waters, and they are caught out at sea, they are usually cooked and often frozen un their shells on board. North Sea prawns, on the other hand, are best bought frozen as there is no telling how long they may have been thawing at the fishmonger’s. The quality of these ready-cooked prawns is very good if you thaw them yourself in the fridge overnight. Fresh Baltic shrimp are best. You can also buy them frozen, canned, and in brine, but it’s not at all the same thing.
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If shrimp are the main course, you should by at least 500g for each person; if they’re a starter, 200g is enough. North Sea Prawns have a higher ratio of flesh to shell, so you don’t need more than 300g per person; 150g is fine for a salad.
Shrimp have a delicate taste, making them best when eaten on their own, with bread and butter. In Denmark, they say that pepper on a shrimp is a crime, like potting pepper on a baby.
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In Scandinavia, the shrimp season is the heart of summer. Big bowls brimming with shrimp, new potatoes, asparagus, dill, a simple meat dish, or fish, and strawberries with cream for dessert: it’s a well-loved menu for Sankt Hans, midsummer evening, celebrated with bonfires and songs, even if it rains on eight out of ten midsummer evenings.
Shrimp should be boiled, like the other crustaceans, in the court-bouillon, and use a large bunch of dill weed which is in season in the summer, when the dill flowers are not yet out. Dump the shrimp in the boiling court-bouillon, boil vigorously for 1 minute, then let them cool in the liquid. This method makes them easier to peel, while also firm and salty.
Small Baltic shrimp are really very small, so it takes maybe a hundred of the little pink creatures to make up a proper open sandwich. But they are a marvel when piled high on a special sourdough bread made from both wheat and rye, studded with caraway seeds. You may add a little black pepper, a spring of dill and a blob of homemade mayonnaise – but lemon I a dirty word here.
A sandwich like this is worth every effort, but it seems it’s becoming less and less popular to spend a summer’s evening with friends eating shrimp – we have perhaps grown so accustomed to fast food that people just think it is a waste of time. You can only pity them; the small shrimp are just as good as lobster, and not hard to peel, once you get the knack. Some people, especially men, claim that they are unable to peel shrimp, and let women do it for them. This must be the ultimate proof of true love. It’s altogether an interesting study of human behavior, and patience; some people eat them while they peel them, others patiently build up masterpieces of pink-fleshed art and devour the masterpiece at the end.
The shells are very good for soup, especially if you include a few shrimp still in their shells.
North Sea prawns have a strong marine taste and can be used in numerous ways, including in sandwiches and salads, or gently fried in their shells. We usually stick to shrimp salad in Scandinavia, a dish that has appeared in so many inferior versions that you could tend to forget just how exquisite and refined the real thing is. The other possibility is to make a soup and pile in the huge prawns at the last minute; they can stand up very well to the intensity of the flavors.
Scandinavian Shrimp, written by Tor Kjolberg