Living in California gives me lots of opportunities to use my charcoal grill. I love the smoky, caramelized flavors that grilling contributes. There is one drawback however: you must be constantly vigilant to not overcook and dry out whatever is on the grill. Shrimp, in my experience, are perhaps one of the most difficult to get right. Even in restaurants they tend to be over cooked, tough and dried out. I’ve given up ordering them in most places. Even if they are cooked properly, a couple of minutes under the heat lamp can ruin them.
My secret for flavorful, moist and juicy shrimp is to brine them ahead. This is a technique that works equally well for other fishes and poultry. Basically a brine is a salt-water solution. Other things can be added for more flavor, but salt water is the starting point. You’d think that adding salt in any form would dry things out, but here’s what happens, (you may remember this from your high school science class!). The action of osmosis comes into play. Things like salts will, over time, equalize on both sides of a semi-permeable membrane. In this case, the membrane is the cell walls of the fish or poultry. The salt on the outside migrates into the cell bringing along with it the water from the brine and so when you cook them, there is actually more moisture in the meat than if it had not been brined at all. The end result is meat that is a lot more moist, juicy and succulent!
The only caution with brining is that leaving it in too long will give you too much salt flavor. You CAN rectify this by soaking in changes of unsalted water to reduce the salt content. An important caveat here: Use either sea salt or kosher salt. Ordinary table salt is just too sharp and “chemical” tasting to make a good brine. Here is one of my favorite grilled shrimp recipes that starts with a brine.
GRILLED BRINED SHRIMP WITH A GRILLED CORN SALSA
Note that we’re cooking the shrimp in the shell. This, in addition to the brining, also keeps them moist plus the shell imparts a lot of flavor to the shrimp meat. You want to use good hardwood charcoal to impart a sweet smoky flavor. Avoid briquettes if you can because they often contain petroleum products.
For the Brine
1/3 cup each sea or kosher salt and brown sugar
1 quart water
For the Marinade
1/4 cup light olive oil
2 teaspoons finely chopped or pressed garlic
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1 ¼ pounds large shrimp (16 – 20 size) or enough for 4 shrimp per person
Grilled Corn Salsa (recipe follows)
Garnish: Avocado slices and sprigs of cilantro
Prepare brine by stirring salt, sugar and water together until dissolved. Add shrimp in their shells and refrigerate for 1 and up to 4 hours. With a pair of scissors cut the shrimp down the center of the back all the way to the next to last tail section. With a sharp knife, butterfly the shrimp in their shells making an incision along the length on the back where the shell is cut. Remove sand vein and rinse. Combine the marinade ingredients and coat the shrimp. Grill shrimp on both sides over medium hot coals until they are just cooked through and shells are slightly charred, about 4 minutes total.
Place shrimp on plates and top with prepared grilled corn salsa, avocado slices and cilantro sprigs. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Grilled Corn Salsa
Makes approximately 3 cups
2 large ears sweet corn
1 each large red bell and poblano peppers, halved with stems and seeds removed
1 small jalapeno pepper; halved, seeded and stemmed
1 medium red onion, peeled and halved
4 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice (or to taste)
2 teaspoons honey (or to taste)
1/3 cup chopped cilantro or basil leaves or a combination
Brush the corn, peppers and onion with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Place vegetables on a medium hot grill and cook on all sides until just beginning to color. Remove, cool and cut corn kernels from cob and place in a bowl. Pull as much of the skin as possible from the peppers, chop and add to corn. Chop onion and also add to corn along with rest of ingredients including remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Stir and allow flavors to marry for at least 30 minutes before using. Store covered in refrigerator for up to 3 days.