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Give your shrimp cocktail a little zing by elevating simple ingredients

You love shrimp. I love shrimp. Go ahead and confess, you know you hang out at the shrimp bowl at every party you go to, afraid they’re going to disappear before you get your fill.

But wait, you’re the one having the gathering. You could do the expected: cold, boiled shrimp with a horseradish-laced cocktail sauce. Not a thing wrong with that tact. You, however, are the uber host, so why go with the norm? During this exciting season of love, hope and craziness, let’s get unique.

My version of Coctel De Camaron, or Mexican Shrimp Cocktail, is a vibrant example of how a few simple ingredients can lift a food to a new plane. My quest to develop a recipe for this concoction has been a couple of years in the making. I’ve asked questions, lots of questions, at restaurants that serve this cocktail, and at Hispanic stores throughout the region.

There have been failures. The biggest was adding lemon-lime soda. What a disgrace to the shrimp!

I knew it couldn’t be all that complicated. But even us food geeks struggle at times.

The liquid is the key, and when it was suggested that I use a clam/tomato juice cocktail as the base, it all came together. This dish is very similar to a ceviche, where the acids in citrus juice actually “cook” the seafood, usually some type of fish.

Here we poach the shrimp first. The exciting taste bud-happy traditions of a great ceviche are definitely present and accounted for, and you will serve something that is crazy good, unexpected, and have folks asking for more.

I implore you to use local shrimp, and even better, the late season green-tail shrimp that are sweet and have less of the iodine flavor of brown shrimp – if you can find them. Any local shrimp will be frozen at this time of the year, but don’t sweat it. Shrimp freeze beautifully. If local shrimp are in a seafood case, ask when they were thawed, or ask if they have some still frozen. That puts you in control.

This preparation also works well with scallops and jumbo lump crabmeat. For the scallops, I do a quick sear before adding to the other ingredients. Gently fold in the crabmeat so you don’t break up the lumps.

Ok, a little nitty gritty.

▪ Undercook your shrimp slightly. Like ceviche, the acid in the lime juice will continue to “cook” the shrimp as it sits.

▪ While I like larger shrimp, smaller ones will be just fine. Could you use frozen pre-cooked shrimp? Sure, if time is short.

▪ You can make the liquid base a day ahead if that helps and even cook the shrimp.

▪ After you’ve added the shrimp, don’t keep them more than a day, as they will get a little tough. You can email me if you have any left after a day. I’ll help you out.

▪ And the leftover clam/and tomato cocktail? Pick up a bottle of Mr. and Mrs. T’s Horseradish Bloody Mary Mix and combine the two for one of the best Bloody Mary bases you’ll ever have.

I know you will enjoy this recipe during this season of specialness and into the new year. I love writing these columns and appreciate you reading, cooking and all the emails you send my way.

The very best of the season to you and your family.

Now, the kitchen is eagerly awaiting your arrival.

Fred Thompson is a Raleigh cookbook author and publisher of Edible Piedmont magazine. Reach him at fxchef1@gmail.com.

Serving suggestions

This dish plays well with all types of cocktail party foods. If using for a first course, then I would follow with a beef or pork roast, steaks, or bone-in pork chops.

To drink: Time to be festive. Champagne. But Mexican beer ain’t bad, either.

Coctel De Camaron

2 pounds of 21-30 count shrimp, peeled (keep the peels), deveined, and cooked (see below note)

1 tablespoon crushed garlic

1 medium red tomato, seeded and diced

1/2 cup red onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped stems and leaves

1 1/2 cups tomato and clam juice cocktail, like Clamato

1/4 cup ketchup

1/4 cup fresh lime juice (not bottled)

1 teaspoon chili-lime hot pepper sauce, or to taste, like Cholula, or regular hot sauce

Kosher salt to taste

1 large avocado, cubed

1 large avocado, sliced for garnish if desired

Stir all the ingredients, except the shrimp, together in a large bowl and season to taste with salt.

Add the shrimp and stir to coat.

Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours for the flavors to meld. Serve in one large glass bowl. Set this bowl inside a larger bowl of ice if using for a cocktail party or buffet, or portion into individual bowls.

Garnish with slices of avocado.

Note: Here’s how I poach shrimp. Notice poach, not boil. Bring a 4-quart pot or larger filled half way with water to a boil. Add a tablespoon of pickling spice, 2 bay leaves, 2 lemons, cut in half, squeeze in the juice, then drop in the rinds. Take the shrimp peels and add them as well.

Reduce the heat to a simmer, then cook for 15 minutes. Strain the liquid and return to the pot. Bring back to a boil, add the shrimp, cover and take off the heat. Let the shrimp sit for about 3-5 minutes.

Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with ice and just enough cold water to cover. Strain the shrimp from the pot and add to the ice water, stirring to stop the cooking process. Once cool, remove the shrimp and use however you wish.

Yield: Serves 6 to 8 for a first course, or about 12 for a gathering

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