The best advice for making shrimp cocktail I ever learned came from the great chef and cookbook author James Beard.
He was adamantly against it.
Not the shrimp, of course, which he adored, but rather the "overpowering red menace known as cocktail sauce," as he wrote in his classic cookbook, "The New James Beard."
"If you value their sweet and delicate flavor," he said, pair your shrimp with lemon, mayonnaise or my personal favorite, a tangy rémoulade sauce.
Beard's classic French rémoulade calls for a homemade mayonnaise spiked with loads of capers, lemon juice and parsley. I added horseradish and hot sauce for a kick, and just enough ketchup to tint the sauce pale pink without letting it cloy. The result is as creamy as it is bracing, an excellent foil to the shrimp's sweet salinity.
Beard sorted out the sauce part for me, but to improve the shrimp I turned to another culinary great, Ina Garten.
The traditional method is to poach them in a pot of seasoned water, but Garten smartly roasts them instead. Roasting the crustaceans concentrates their flavor, keeping them plump and tender with far less of a risk of overcooking.
Besides, roasting is a snap. Toss the peeled shrimp on a sheet pan with a drizzle of olive oil and pinch of salt, and then throw the pan in the oven at high heat. The shrimp will be done in 10 minutes or less, depending on their size.
Since you don't need to plunge the shrimp in an ice bath to stop the cooking, they won't be overly chilled. Served warm or at room temperature, the shrimp are at their succulent best.
If you don't mind the expense, choose extra-large shrimp (16 to 20 shrimp per pound), which are attractive to serve and forgiving to cook. But smaller, more economical shrimp also work perfectly, as long as you shave a minute or two from the roasting time and watch them carefully. The shrimp are done when they turn from translucent gray to opaque pink, but they shouldn't curl into rounds, which indicates overcooking. Think gently curving ears, not tightly coiled Os.
In many decades of existence, shrimp cocktail has fallen from the height of fashion to a kind of kitschy charm. But this one retains its lofty status by standing on the shoulders of more than one giant.
Roasted Shrimp Cocktail With Horseradish Sauce
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer.
Roasting shrimp for shrimp cocktail intensifies their sweet saline flavor and makes them exceptionally plump and tender, with less chance of overcooking than the traditional poaching. Then, instead of being paired with the usual bright red cocktail sauce, these shrimp are served with a horseradish-forward take on a classic French rémoulade, which is both bracing and creamy. It's best to season the sauce to taste: Adding more ketchup makes it sweeter and pinker; more lemon juice makes it tangier; more horseradish makes it sharper. From Melissa Clark, New York Times.
For the shrimp:
• 1 lb. extra-large (16 to 20 count) shrimp, shelled, deveined if you like
• 1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Horseradish Sauce:
• 3/4 c. mayonnaise
• 3 tbsp. chopped scallions
• 2 tbsp. chopped parsley
• 2 tbsp. prepared white horseradish, plus more to taste
• 1 tbsp. drained capers, finely chopped
• 1 to 2 tbsp. lemon juice, to taste
• 1 to 2 tsp. ketchup, to taste
• 1/2 tsp. hot sauce
• 1/4 tsp. sweet paprika
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Pat shrimp dry. On a rimmed baking sheet, toss shrimp with oil, a pinch of salt and several grinds of black pepper. Roast until the shrimp turn pink and opaque, and are cooked through, 6 to 10 minutes. (They shouldn't curl up, which indicates overcooking.) Remove from the hot baking sheet and place on a plate or serving platter.
Prepare the horseradish sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients, adding a pinch of salt and pepper. Taste, adding more horseradish, lemon juice and ketchup if needed.
Serve shrimp with the sauce for dipping.