Boil 'em

In which I tempt fate.

Last summer, I had a sudden memory of a meal I’d had in college. With my boyfriend at the time, I’d gone to South Carolina to visit some of his relatives. One night, we were served a low-country boil, something I (in my New England innocence) had never even heard of.

Newspapers were spread across the table, and then the meal came out: Shrimp, sausage, pieces of ears of corn, chunks of onions, all flavored with whatever spices had been in the water and served with bread and butter. We were supposed to eat everything with our hands, then wrap it all up in newspaper and throw it out.

This, to me, was magical.

I don’t know what sparked the memory last summer — probably the heat — but I invited a bunch of friends over instantly to do the same and then looked up a recipe, which it turns out is absurdly easy.

And we had a feast.

This year we planned to do the same in mid-July, but it was that weekend when it was 110 degrees (!!!) all weekend, and 30 people had RSVPd, and we live in a very small apartment which, yes, has an outdoor space that makes it normally pretty fine, if cozy, to have 30 people over. But if nobody wants to be outside because they’re afraid of spontaneous combustion, and your A/C does not work all that well, it’s less of a recipe for a shrimp boil and more of a recipe for death.

So anyhow, we postponed, but the time approaches, which is why I’m thinking about it tonight.

Here is how you do a low country boil for, say, 20ish people (a handful more than I’m expecting but enough for a crowd).

First you will need to gather your ingredients. I warn you: this is not the most inexpensive meal to serve to a crowd, unless you live in the actual low country, where shrimp is cheap. Up here it runs about $13 a pound most of the time.

Get as much as you can afford, between 6 and 10 pounds. If you can, you want the shrimp that hasn’t been peeled already. It’s more labor intensive for your guests that way, to be sure. But that’s kind of the idea; you can’t just nosh down quantities of shrimp if you’re peeling them first. And also, the shrimp retain more flavor if they cook with the shell on.

If you can only get peeled shrimp, though, don’t sweat it; I did that by accident last year it was totally fine.

Also, make sure it is raw shrimp. This is really important. It should be probably kind of silvery-grey, and definitely not pink and white, like the stuff you eat in a shrimp cocktail. You want shrimp that has never touched heat. Otherwise the end result will be gross and rubbery. Trust me.

You’ll also need corn, about 16 ears for 20 people, and sausage (something like 4-5 pounds), ideally smoked pork sausage. (This year I have kielbasa. Last year I used raw house-made sausage and just cooked it a little longer than the recipe called for.) Also, about 8 pounds of small potatoes in red jackets, often called “new” potatoes, and 3 or 4 sweet onions (like Vidalias).

And make sure you have the most important ingredient: some kind of spice to boil them all in. I use Old Bay, because I am from a mid-Atlantic state. There are lots of other regional spices that are appropriate, and you can use things marked for a “crab boil” or a “lobster boil” if you wish. Maybe just ask your grocer.

Some bay leaves, some peppercorns, some salt, and 4 quartered lemons, and that’s about all you’ll need for the boil. You also will want a bunch of butter and either cocktail sauce or the fixins for cocktails sauce (found in this recipe; I recommend it heartily, it’s really good and very simple), because that’s how people add flavor later on.

Okay. Get out your biggest pot or, if you’re me, two enormous stock pots so everything can be done at once. (You can use one big pot, but you’ll have to do it twice, which could be annoying.) Fill each pot with 6 quarts of water and put two lemons in each pot, along with 2 bay leaves apiece, 3 T of salt, and 2 t of peppercorns. (Presumably you can just use black pepper, but I’ll leave it to you to Google how much and anyhow, if you’re buying this much shrimp already, spring for some peppercorns for your kitchen.)

Add a half cup of Old Bay (or whatever seasoning you prefer) and bring it all to a boil, which is going to take a while, because this is a lot of water. Fear not! Stay the course! And cut some of your potatoes into pieces if you need to, because you want them to be about the size of a very well-fed ping-pong ball. (Ideally, you will just dump them in whole.)

Once it’s all boiling like crazy, split the potatoes into two groups and add them to the water. Cook them around 7 minutes; you don’t want them quite soft yet, because they’ll cook a while longer. Meanwhile, slice the sausage into slices about two inches thick and quarter the onions. Then add those to the pot and cook another 5 minutes. Crack the corn into halves, and add the halved ears to the pot for another 5 minutes.

At this point you want to test the potatoes, which I’ve discovered can be a little bit of a challenge since there’s a lot of stuff in the pot. The best plan is to fish out a piece and stab it with a fork, and if it goes through easily, move on. If not, try again in a minute.

Now it’s time for the grand finale! Tell everyone to get ready, make sure the newspapers are spread out and the butter is melted and in bowls and the cocktail sauce is also in bowls, and then add the shrimp! Hurrah!

You guys, shrimp cooks so fast. And because you smartly bought raw shrimp, you’ll get to see it change colors. Put it into the pot (which will no longer be boiling and that’s totally fine), and stir it slightly as it cooks for about three minutes.

And then … you’re done! Or almost done. The hardest part, and the part you may want help with, is that you now need to drain the pot into a colander or, if you’re like I was last year, a sink lined with all of the small colanders you have collected over the years. (This is not efficient, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.) It’s going to be very hot and steamy, and you will look like a bedraggled mess when you are done.

But who cares? Now you have made a shrimp boil, and your guests are starving. Make sure they drink something tasty with it (a lemony seltzer, or stronger stuff) and have some bread nearby. Peel the shrimp, and leave the shells on the newspaper. Dip anything you want into cocktail sauce or butter. This is a really messy meal, and that’s what’s fun about it. (Also it’s shockingly healthy.)

Then when you’re done, wrap everything up in the newspaper, throw away the newspaper, and you’ve basically cleaned up. Time for more wine. (Or brownies?)

P.S. Oh, one note: Make sure you really dispose of those shrimp shells. They stink really fast; bring them out to the curb or the trash can rather than letting them sit in your house overnight. They really stink.

Loading more posts…