Maine shrimp and homemade cocktail sauce: a Northern winter delicacy

So, what delights of the season can you eat in mid-winter? In New England: nothing. Now that we finally have winter—hey, no complaints here about its lazy entrance—with snow and solidly frozen ground settling in, it’s time to step down to the root cellar for more celeriac and turnips, oh joy. But wait. I don’t have a root cellar. Carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, bolstered by kale and barley? Their novelty wears off by early December. With no trips to warmer climes in sight, we Northerners need a little boost of something special to tide us over until spring.

Enter the Maine shrimp. These tiny, delicate crustaceans are in season roughly from late December to early March, and they are well worth seeking out right now. This year’s season will be shorter and leaner than other years, making their consumption even sweeter. I toyed with making a Thai-inspired soup with rice noodles and plenty of chilies and ginger and lemon grass, but soup by the bucketful is already on the menu five days a week. It takes a while to peel enough of these babies to make a substantial pile of them to add to soup…. maybe another day, soon.

For the first shrimp of the season (which has been delayed as it is) I want to cook them in the Yankee spirit: plain and simple. Make a flavorful broth, throw in the shrimp for a nano-second, plunk them in ice water and voila! A feast! The super bowl members of the family should be elated to have a heap of these alongside the traditional chips and guacamole.

Now, for the real reason to eat shrimp: cocktail sauce. I have strong feelings about it. I don’t want prepared cocktail sauce with extraneous stuff in it. Call me a Yankee, but I want the good, old-fashioned kind made from Heinz ketchup, nothing fancy. It has three ingredients: ketchup, horseradish and lemon juice. No, garlic, chili sauce (whatever that is), and herbs. Yes, horseradish and lemon. As anyone who has ever shared a plate of oysters with me knows, be prepared for me to embarrass you by asking for a side of horseradish. Mignonette sauce is all well and good, but cocktail sauce stirs my soul. I’m not sure why—the childhood treat of shrimp cocktail in a fancy restaurant?—the sight of cold seafood inspires longings for the red, spicy dip, heavy on the horseradish.

I don’t see the point of buying pre-made cocktail sauce. Unless you eat it by the heaping spoonful, it will clog your refrigerator door for a year or two before you finally become annoyed enough to throw it out to make room for more important condiments. To make your own sauce is dead easy. You can buy prepared horseradish or you can buy horseradish root. Horseradish in a jar loses its potency after a while, and grated horseradish becomes bitter and weak quickly unless mixed with some acid (vinegar or lemon juice) so it is best to use it as soon as you grate it. A hunk of root should last a couple of months in the refrigerator before it dries out. Grate it as needed.

Boiled Maine shrimp (or, how to not make little rubber balls)
Serves 2 (recipe may be doubled, tripled etc.)

This method of cooking shrimp applies to all shrimp. DO NOT BOIL! Delicate proteins in shrimp seize when subjected to high temperatures. To POACH shrimp, the water temperature should be between 160 and 180 degrees. It will not be boiling, but will be hot when you test it with your finger. If you want to cook more shrimp, do it in batches of about 1 pound each to insure even cooking.

1 pound Maine shrimp
1 onion, sliced
Juice of 1 lemon
Lots of salt
Several peppercorns
2 to 3 bay leaves

1. Fill a large bowl with ice water and set it next to the stove.

2. Bring 2 inches of water to a boil in a wide, deep sauté pan. Add onion, lemon juice, juiced lemon halves, salt, peppercorns and bay leaves. Adjust heat to a low boil and cook for 5 minutes. Taste the broth. It should taste like well-seasoned stock.

3. Turn off the heat. Add shrimp and stir to keep it moving around so it heats evenly. If cooking larger shrimp or cooking more shrimp, turn heat on briefly to compensate for the heat loss caused by adding cold shrimp to the broth. Test with your finger to make sure it is hot, but do not let it boil.

4. Cook small shrimp for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. To test for doneness, break one in half. It should be opaque in the center.  Scoop it quickly into the ice water bath. Swish it around for a few seconds, to be sure it stops cooking, and drain. Serve with cocktail sauce and peel at the table.

Cocktail sauce
I like mine puckery and strong, so this is more of a guideline than a recipe. Start with small amounts of horseradish and lemon until you achieve the taste you like.

1/2 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon (more or less, to taste) finely grated horseradish, fresh or from a jar
Juice of 1/2 lemon, or to taste
A few grindings of black pepper if you like

1. Mix together and enjoy!

How to poach shrimp without making little rubber balls

Make a flavorful broth--be sure to add plenty of salt--and simmer for a few minutes. It should taste like well seasoned stock.

Turn off the heat and add the shrimp. If the broth cools too much from adding cold shrimp, turn on the heat briefly to bring it up to hot temperature (bravely stick your finger in it--it should feel hot!) You are aiming for 160 to 180 degrees. Don't let it boil!

Keep stirring the shrimp so that it cooks evenly (most of the heat is on the bottom, you need to distribute it.) Cook for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, until done. Break open one shrimp to see if the center is opaque. 

Use a slotted spoon or spider to transfer shrimp quickly to the ice water bath. Swish around for half a minute, until cool. Drain and serve with plenty of napkins and cocktail sauce.


  1. Nice. I don't watch the Super Bowl. Maybe I'll just cook up a batch of these and eat them while catching up on Downton Abbey. Now that I know how to not cook them into little rubber balls. Good post. Ken

  2. Well, I don't watch it either Ken, but you get the idea. Downton Abbey, yes, or even on Oscars night....get 'em while they last, I guess. Even then, they don't last long. I may have eaten some for breakfast one day. Can't remember, but they disappeared quickly.