The first time I ever saw a stand selling proper Colombian style coctel de camarones, my wife-to-be seemed oddly averse to letting me sample it. We'd only been in Cartagena for a couple days and had thus far eaten excellent arepas de huevo in the courtyard of the Hotel Charleston, snagged a few fresh lobsters grilled over an open wood fire in the middle of a two-man canoe (the paddler would go from small island to small island, while the cook would occasionally jump overboard when he spotted a likely lobster hiding spot in the clear waters below), had an al fresco beach-side meal of coconut rice and fried fish, and had an extremely mediocre pizza that we totally ignored because we were eating it in South America on the roof of a restaurant under a starry sky with a band playing in the street below.
I couldn't for the life of me understand why my not-even-fiancé-yet would be ok with me eating mediocre Colombian pizza but was visibly reluctant to even let me step foot in a shrimp cocktail stand near the beach. I dragged her inside and ordered one to figure it out.
Ah, I thought to myself, that makes sense. See, believe it or not, back in my wild and reckless youth, I was what you might refer to as a food snob. One who'd thumb my nose at Domino's pizza, excuse myself from the festivities when so-called friends dared invite me to a cook-out featuring store-bought burger patties, or give shockingly reproachful-yet-eloquent soliloquies towards roommates who'd dare use boxed pancake mix in my presence.
I've since changed my ways, or at least deeply repressed them, but it's totally understandable that my as-of-yet-unchained-ball thought that I might judge her (not to mention her culture and her cuisine) for serving me cooked shrimp dressed with a mixture of bottled mayonnaise and ketchup, served on top of Saltine crackers, no less.
And really, that's all that Colombian-style shrimp cocktail is. And yet, it's much, much more. Fragrant with onions and lime juice with a hint of heat and a bright acidity, the best shrimp cocktail should have tiny shrimp that are totally packed with flavor while maintaining a tender, nearly crisp bite to them.
Like many simple foods, doing it right is all about balance and care in preparation.
Though some folks refer to the dish as a ceviche, it is only tangentially related to the Peruvian dish of marinated raw seafood. In this case, the shrimp are cooked, and rather than a tart, spicy sauce of citrus juice and peppers, the Colombian version is dressed with an almost Thousand-Island-esque mayo-based sauce. Think of it as ceviche for beginners.
The first key to a great coctel de camarones is to start with great shrimp. In Cartagena, they couldn't be better. Glistening, fresh, and plump. Your best bet here is to head to a live fish market (if your city has a Chinatown, that's a good place to start), buy some live shrimp, and clean them yourself.
Your next best bet is to use frozen shell-on shrimp. You should always avoid buying un-frozen shrimp because there's a 99 percent chance that those shrimp they're selling raw are the exact same shrimp they're selling in the frozen bags, except for the fact that they've been sitting defrosted in the display window for who knows how long.
Pre-shelled shrimp tend to be a little mangled, while pre-cooked shrimp are almost useless for this application.
Why start with raw shrimp? Two reasons: first, cooked shrimp are pretty much always overcooked shrimp. Second, flavor absorption. I like to take my raw shrimp and toss them with lime juice and salt. The lime juice will soak into the shrimp, and just like a Peruvian ceviche, the acid will begin to denature the proteins in the shrimp, causing them to effectively cook. Salt acts as a brine, helping the shrimp to retain extra moisture and stay plumper as they cook.
Once the shrimp have marinated, I cook them as briefly as possible in boiling salted water. The goal is to get them just barely opaque through to the center. It's for this reason that I prefer using small shrimp over large ones. With large shrimp, by the time the center cooks through, the outside has become too firm for my taste. Little shrimp stay tender through and through.
After cooking the shrimp, it's a simple matter of getting a well-balanced sauce. I like using plenty of lime juice and plenty of raw onion to give the cocktail a boost of bright flavor. Chopped parsley leaves (or cilantro, if you prefer) add freshness, while a healthy splash of hot sauce adds heat. My wife prefers more ketchup in her sauce than I do, but you can feel free to adjust the ratios as you see fit.
And—mind you, this may just be the latent food snob in me coming out—I personally like to add a splash of really good extra-virgin olive oil to my dressing. There are few things in life that aren't improved by good olive oil.
And that's about it. It's a simple dish that runs the risk of being looked at as cheap or even inferior, and it certainly can be if not prepared well. Fortunately, we're not going to have that problem here.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.