"We're Back!" the sign proclaims, below the hand-painted cartoon of a monstrous ice cream sundae, pressuring me every time I head north out of town to get excited, oblivious to the fact that I hadn't noticed its off-season closure.
It's the take-out shack that sprung up in a driveway last summer, the one that seems a little too home-grown, makeshift even, to be legitimate, the one that may actually serve excellent, cheap road food, which Josh and I will never realize, because we're too skeptical to go there. Why I get flushed with excitement over a food truck in the city, but squeamish at the thought of take-out from a roadside trailer, is obviously a case of foodie snobbery. Authenticity in measured doses, apparently. To ease my guilt, I tell myself it's simply because I know I won't be able to eat anything at a place that's all about fried food and burgers.
Because, also hovering there underneath the pastel-colored sundae, large, off-center letters loudly proclaim Fried Clams. I can't have those. I don't even like those, to tell you the truth. Clams are the only shellfish I've never understood the appeal of. Odd, coming as I do from a long line of fishermen and lobstermen.
But seeing that sign reminds me of that other fried clam shack, the one just over the bridge, on the edge of one of my favorite islands, the one we drove past every summer on our way to our annual stay at Uncle Skeet's camp, the one Mom always claimed had the best fried clams. Fat Pat's. A wobbly little building, perched on the edge of the road and adorned with a hand-painted sign, serving up pints and quarts of crispy, golden nuggets. That one, though, is long gone, and I wonder now how many people still miss the traditional stop there on their way out to Cundy's Harbor.
I always wanted to like fried clams. They seemed so ubiquitous coastal Maine, I felt it should be in my blood to want baskets of them every summer. One August night many years ago, Mom took a drive across the islands all the way to Pat's, and brought back to camp a fragrant batch of whole belly fried clams. It was a chilly night — not actually a night that should have felt cold, except that it had been a very muggy day, so the dark air was, appropriately, clammy. Which is good on the ocean, because air like that better carries the scent of saltwater to you and lays it thickly over your nose, lest you forget how lucky you are to be there. I had bare feet, naturally, and under them the ancient linoleum floor of the camp kitchen felt sticky. Gathered around the table, swinging our toes against that tacky floor, we ate the clams. I remember liking the crispy, salty batter coating the best. Because underneath that, there were strange, shifting textures and sandy flavors that confused my tongue, so different from the clean, high-pitched song of my favorite bivalve, crinkle-shelled clams. (Oysters, to the rest of you.) I tried not to pay too much attention.
My fried clam experiences after that were few. But it didn't matter, because for a long time I was blind to all other forms of fried seafood due to my deep, head-spinning, soul-satisfying love affair with fried Maine shrimp.
Those? Those I could eat by the bucketful. I did eat them by the bucketful. I became so predictable that, out to dinner with my grandparents, I didn't even need to look at the menu, and they didn't even need to ask me what I wanted. Fried shrimp basket, please. Extra tartar sauce. I even started to weave "fried shrimp lover" into the basic elements of my identity.
When you're up to your neck in an obsession, it can be hard to really understand why you're in that place. You just are, and it pleases you immensely, and there's no need to analyze it further. But it's interesting to note that I never branched out to fully embrace the entire category of batter-fried foods. Sure, I also loved onion rings and wouldn't pass up a good piece of fried chicken, but I never became doggedly single-minded in my consumption of them. I only had eyes for sweet, delicate Maine shrimp.
And then I went gluten-free. I don't remember doing all that much mourning when I first realized I had to give up gluten. (Living with my celiac father for all those years made the change-over fairly painless.) I do know, however, that it took significant willpower to pass up fried shrimp in the early days, and after a while I tried not to let my eyes even see them on the menu when I found myself at a seafood restaurant. Out of sight, out of mind.
It worked for a while, and eventually I didn't suffer despairing cravings when summer rolled around and fried seafood seemed to be all anyone in Maine could talk about. I learned to live without fried shrimp, and was even happy.
Until recently, when my children discovered them, and I was forced to sit and watch while they devoured the crunchy morsels, and hear about how good the fried shrimp were when they went out to eat with their grandparents, and suddenly I realized I wasn't over my obsession, not by a long shot. And with that, making batter-fried Maine shrimp jumped to the top of my short list.
I didn't have a trusted recipe to follow. I have no idea what type of batter my childhood favorite diner uses for their fried shrimp. All I could do was think about the qualities that were important to me, and go from there. Crispy and crunchy, but still delicate. A batter that would puff up, but not get soggy, during its time in the hot oil. Enough richness and spice in the batter that a dipping condiment, though appreciated, would not be a necessity. And it had to be easy - I wasn't up for the three-bowl affair that involves giving the shrimp layered coats of flour, egg, and seasoned crumbs.
Frying them up, they looked right. Out of the oil, they smelled right. I gave the first ones to the boys, who immediately forgot their insisted-upon-by-me fear of a pot of scalding oil as they clambered closer to me, begging for more. And as soon as I tried one, I knew. I knew by the headlong dive into a swoon my tastebuds were taking, by the feeling of urgent, passionate desire I was suddenly experiencing. I knew by the siren call repeating in my ear.
Gluten-Free Batter Fried Shrimp
Deep frying. Two words that strike fear into the hearts of many, both for the fire danger and negative health implications they carry. I believe that caution and moderation will solve both of those problems. Make sure you aren't multitasking while frying (the quickest way to an accident, even if it's just burnt food, is to lose track of what you're doing), and have at the ready a heavy lid that can be quickly thrown over the pot of oil, should it catch fire. Long, close-fitting sleeves will protect your forearms from splatter burns. And, like cotton candy and triple-thick milkshakes, those other summertime treats our doctors wish we wouldn't indulge in, consider deep-fried shrimp (or deep-fried anything, really) a very rare, very delicious treat.
1 pound peeled, raw Maine shrimp (unlike other shrimp, there's no need to devein them), or the shrimp of your choice
4 fluid ounces whole milk
70 grams (½ cup) yellow cornmeal
66 grams (½ cup) all-purpose gluten-free flour blend (I used a mix of equal parts white rice flour, sorghum flour, and tapioca starch)
1 large egg, well beaten
2 tablespoons sake (or dry white wine)
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon psyllium husk powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon smoked hot paprika
liberal dash of Tabasco sauce (optional)
Salt and pepper, for seasoning
Canola or other neutral oil, for frying
Candy thermometer, for frying
Spread the shrimp in a single layer on a plate or cutting board. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and set aside, at room temperature, for 10-15 minutes.
Whisk together the milk, cornmeal, flour, egg, sake, baking powder, psyllium husk powder, kosher salt, paprika, and Tabasco until no lumps remain in the batter. Set aside.
In a heavy, deep pot heat at least three inches of oil to 350ºF. (You'll have to continually monitor the heat while you're frying, raising or lowering the heat to maintain as constant a temperature as possible.) While the oil is coming up to temperature, add the shrimp to the batter and stir gently to thoroughly coat.
Working in batches, carefully drop the shrimp into the hot oil. (I found it easiest to pick them up with my hands; that way, I avoided also grabbing big spoonfuls of batter.) Cook the shrimp until they're a deep golden brown, about two minutes for Maine shrimp, up to four minutes for larger shrimp, then remove with a slotted spoon or spider and transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.
Serve hot, with ketchup, tartar sauce, lemon wedges, etc.
Posted by Tara Barker at 11:17 PM