Updated: Mar 9, 2022
My first recollection with eating any type of shrimp was a 21 fried shrimp basket at McKees Rocks Bottoms's bar, Five and Dime. However, I fell in love with steamed shrimp when my college roommate took us to her hometown of Baltimore, MD. We'd head to the iconic Fells Point, the quintessential waterside area known for its hip pubs and taverns, live music as well as seafood joints-- crabs, oysters, shrimp-- serving everything Chesapeake Bay style.
One particular joint, John Stevens, left an indelible mark.
This 1911 tavern embraced the rich history of the neighborhood, once housed an upstairs brothel, and had a big heavy antiquarian bar with dark wood appointments. Generations of beatniks would eat steamed shrimp, drink pints (of beer) and read poetry. Fast forward to 1990s, we did the same thing, except the poetry. It was there that I fell in love with everything doused in Old Bay and garlic butter.
Now steamed shrimp is a staple in my kitchen. This go-to meal can double as a snack and triple as an easy to make accompaniment when friends come over. I've made these for football tailgates and rugby socials, and just for the helluva it; they are always a hit.
Since I live landlocked in Pittsburgh, PA the best shrimp I can purchase are frozen. I buy raw, easy peel, shell on 16-20s Nature’s Basket, local market Giant Eagle/Market District. They are the perfect size and the easiest to peel.
If you aren't familiar with the sizing of shrimp (10u, 11-15, 16-20, 21-30, 31-35, 36-45) it is the number of shrimp per pound. A 10u shrimp is much bigger than a 21-30 shrimp. The lower the number, the bigger the shrimp, but the less pieces of shrimp per pound. I stick with the 16-20 simply because they are perfectly sized for dinner or a party and are easy to cook. The smaller can be overcooked quickly and the larger can be undercooked.
I’d love to buy fresh head on shrimp but they are almost impossible to find where I live. When I can find them, which is not very often, I usually prepare them this exact way.
2 bags (3 pounds) Jumbo (16-20) raw shrimp, easy peel and shell-on
2 lemons, sliced
1 yellow onion, sliced
1 can of your favorite lager (I like to use Narragansett, but I should probably be using National Bohemian-- affectionately known as Natty Bo-- a Baltimore staple)
1/4- 1/2 cup old bay seasoning, or more depending on your preference
What to do
thaw frozen shrimp in refrigerator, usually takes about 24-36 hours
in a colander, rinse shrimp with cold water and dry
slice onions and lemons
4. in a sauce pot fitted with a steamer, assemble the onions, lemons and shrimp in layers--sprinkling the old bay on each layer
5. add beer and sprinkle remaining Old Bay on top. Cover with lid and place on stovetop over high flame 10-12 minutes.
**check half way through cooking time, tossing the shrimp to ensure even cooking.
6. you want to keep an eye on the crevice in the back of the shrimp where the vein was removed. Stay locked onto the thickest part of the shrimp (opposite of the tail) and when the flesh at the base of that crevice turns from translucent to opaque (or blue-ish to pink) the shrimp is done. Overcooking will yield a rubbery shrimp. When in doubt, remove from heat but leave in covered pot for 5 minutes. The steam will continue to cook the shrimp to perfection.
7. Test shrimp, if you can peel the shell off and the shrimp has an al dente but soft texture, they're done.
Serve with your favorite cocktail sauce; mine happens to be Kelchners or in the spirit of the John Stevens beatniks, garlic butter.
2 sticks butter
4 cloves or 1/4 cup of minced garlic
1. In a heavy bottom sauce pan over medium low heat, add garlic and butter. Melt and cook until butter is frothy, about 5-7 minutes. Remove the froth for a clarified butter**.
**The longer you can let the butter cook, the more flavorful your butter will be, but you’ll have to really watch it as butter can burn in a blink of an eye and be ruined. (clarified butter is clear and normally doesn’t congeal if all of the milk fat (froth) is removed.)
Don't forget your favorite beverage. Add a few friends and some laughter and you will have a perfect dish...every time.