When I was a kid, I was always amazed at what my maternal grandmother, Annie, who practically raised me, could do with food. And her gift to transform leftovers was known and admired by all. Annie made everything from scratch and when the plates of food were placed on the table, my mother would always exclaim, “Mom, such great color.” Annie was definitely an early proponent that healthy eating should be both pleasing to the eye (color) and the palate (taste).
But, mostly, I remember how talented she was at taking leftovers—which I was not even interested in in their original form—and making something completely new and exciting with them, which I would always love. Leftover mashed potatoes? Voila, potato puffs. Leftover roast and vegetables? A delicious hash. (Annie’s best friend always thought she should write a cookbook on what to do with leftovers–it was that impressive.)
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
Thanks to Annie, I had great inspiration and knowledge of what to do with things you couldn’t possibly do anything with. And then I lived in Mexico where their sheer resourcefulness is extraordinary. It’s sensational, remarkable and ingenious. (My grandmother would have loved living in Mexico–and even shown them a few tricks.)
I remember we had just moved there and taken over the hotel when the CD player quit working in the restaurant—which was outdoors and had obviously succumbed to the wet, salty air. In our minds, the only way to get another CD player was to drive 120 miles south to Acapulco and get one at Costco or Sam’s. But it was the middle of December and we didn’t have time for that. Our hotel was going to be full of guests before we knew it and we had employees working around the clock to make everything perfect—painting everything, regrouting the pool, you name it.
But have no fear, our manager told us, “We can have it repaired in town.” Ha, we thought, “This old thing can never be fixed. We need to get a new one.” But, alas we were wrong. We took it to an electrical repairman in town and within one day, the CD player was back and fully restored. We were amazed and speechless and all that for just 50 pesos ($5). Living in Mexico had its advantages, we amused ourselves.
So when Sabino, my beloved chef and amigo, deveined approximately 50 pounds of shrimp every day, he dare not throw away the shrimp shells–well, they might go in your trash, but in Mexico and in many restaurants, the shrimp shells are used to make a stock. (He also added the lobster shells to enhance the stock for making the lobster bisque.)
Making Something from Nothing
So, what do you do when your freezer is full of five bags of shrimp shells, and one beautiful bag of shrimp heads and shells? You make shrimp stock, of course. Granted, the more shells you have, the more flavor the stock will have.
Once you have a rich, colored shrimp stock, celebrate and make shrimp and corn chowder (recipe follows). It’s an incredibly smart way to squeeze the last bit of flavor from the shrimp shells and savor the last of the summer corn we wait all year for. Your gratitude for wasted food will heighten and you’ll be begging the family to eat more shrimp.
If the shells we typically throw away can turn water into a rich shellfish broth, are you now thinking about what you might be able to do with some of the other food you throw away?
This is a thing of beauty in that you are using shells, which most people throw away, to create an incredibly rich broth for future use. This is the complete opposite of food waste and that makes my grandmother very happy.
- 1-2 ziploc bags of shrimp shells and heads, if you have them
- Corn cobs if corn is in season, adding the cobs to the stock make it even better
- 2 carrots coarsely chopped
- 1 onion quartered, with skins on
- 2 stalks celery chopped
- 2 cloves garlic optional
- 2 tablespoons black peppercorns whole
- 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
Place shrimp shells and vegetables in a large soup pot and put just enough water in to cover. Turn on medium-high heat and when the water begins to boil, turn down to a simmer and let it cook for at least 4 hours—or longer if you can. The longer it cooks, the more depth of flavor it will have.
When the stock attains a rich color and flavor, taste it to see if it needs additional salt or pepper and, if so, add and continue tasting until it's where you want it to be. Then turn off the heat and let sit for another 2 hours to cool. Strain the broth, removing all of the shells and vegetables—now is when you can throw the shells away. Use broth to make a seafood soup, shrimp chowder or freeze.
When it comes to reserving vegetable peels, shrimp shells and the like for future stocks like this, I also like to save any corn cobs. Once the corn is removed from the cob, just add it to the freezer bag and save it.
Shrimp and Corn Chowder
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 onion diced
- 2 carrots diced
- 2 stalks celery diced
- 1 poblano diced
- 1 tomato chopped
- 4-8 cups shrimp stock
- 1 pound shrimp deshelled, deveined and coarsely chopped
- 2 ears corn shucked and corn cut off the cob or 1 cup frozen corn
- Kosher or sea salt to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Chopped cilantro and cubed avocado for garnish
In a medium sauce pan, add 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and saute onion and celery until translucent, about 3-5 minutes. Sprinkle with a little salt (1/8 tsp. or a "smidgen," as Annie used to say) to extract the juices from the vegetables. Add carrot and poblano and cook another 3 minutes. Add another little sprinkle of salt. Toss in chopped tomato, and another bit of salt. Cover with shrimp stock. Let simmer for about 15 minutes.
Add chopped shrimp and corn and cook about 5 minutes, or until the shrimp are thoroughly cooked. Serve, top with chopped cilantro and avocado, a sprinkle of Maldon salt and a grind of fresh pepper.
While we did eat some soup last night, soup always tastes better the next day, so we're going to enjoy more tonight along side a BLT. I got fresh, vine-riped tomatoes at the farmers market yesterday and David picked up our favorite no nitrates, low sodium, low fat bacon at Whole Foods. We're trying to hold on to the last flavors of summer while we can.