Making Mom's Shrimp Dish My Own


When I graduated from high school, my parents took the family out for dinner at Frankie and Johnny’s, a small, family-run restaurant in Cape Neddick, Maine, that prepares the kind of elevated "New American" cuisine that’s now so popular: blackened pork Delmonico with a sweet pear cream sauce, peppercorn-crusted seared tuna, and the like. My graduation was an accomplishment worthy of celebration, given the significant difficulties I had as a teenager with attention and anxiety. I squeaked through high school with a truly embarrassing GPA, but ultimately succeeded, in no small part because of the support of my parents.

In a sunlit dining room overlooking a small garden, I received two gifts, both heirlooms but of different kinds: a gold pocket watch, which my parents encouraged me to use every day, and a book that they handed over with no instructions at all. It was understood that I would know how to use it.

The book is bound in soft leather, a shade halfway between maroon and aubergine, and it feels sturdy and well made. If you open the now-scratched and -pitted cover and page past the marble-patterned endpaper, you’ll see an inscription written in my father’s exuberant hand, which reads, "With Love and Admiration on your high-school graduation. Hallelujah!" Their names are signed plainly, just "Dad" and "Mom," and my mom’s curling handwriting continues on the title page with the following inscription: "Recipes from Home: a personal cookbook presented to Jacob Dean, June 14, 2002."

This book, and the recipes it contains, are the legacy of my family. My mom, Denise Landis, was a recipe tester and occasional columnist for the New York Times for over 25 years, and is now the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Cook’s Cook. We ate at Frankie and Johnny’s that day in part because of a relationship she forged with the owners during that time, after she included a recipe for their smoked salmon and potato terrine in the Times.

Being the son of a recipe tester means never knowing what you’re going to have for dinner. While my friends’ parents stuck to a limited range of dishes served on a rotating schedule, our table was a cornucopia powered by the editorial calendar of the Times. My friend Hunter says his favorite childhood dish was "beef in a bag," a pot roast sealed with vegetables in an ovenproof plastic bag and cooked until fork-tender. When I went over to my buddy Kevin’s, dinner was almost always pasta with jarred sauce. Eating at my house was different. It meant being exposed to odoriferous and oozing cheeses, like Limburger and Camembert; wild pheasant that still had tooth-cracking shards of buckshot in its flesh; and primordial-looking monkfish. My mom had to special-order the monkfish from our local fishmonger, whose typical stoicism was often broken by her esoteric requests. It meant seasonal vegetables, at a time when all of my friends were eating frozen carrots and peas; steaming tagines of lamb and couscous; and cold salads like tabbouleh. Cracked wheat mixed with chopped parsley, garlic, and tomato may not seem all that exotic now, but in New Hampshire in the 1990s it was pretty radical. One time I came home from school to a crown roast of pork, its cavity filled with a bread and sausage stuffing. Meals of that magnitude didn’t happen often, but they were always in the realm of possibility.

The cookbook my parents gave me is an encapsulation of that childhood, the favorite dishes of the family, taken from multiple sources across disparate cultures. A recipe for a piquant, red-tinged Thai shrimp soup, tom yum goong, lies next to one for a standard Italian-American chicken Parmesan. A few pages after that are instructions for "grilled Basque wings," which describe coating chicken wings with a fragrant slurry of chopped garlic, lemon juice, and fresh herbs, along with a note that says, "You need a grill for this." (Thanks, Mom.)

But the real treasure for me is entry number 13, the recipe labeled simply "Shrimp Dish," with the subheading "also known as 'Pain in the Butt Dish (who is it named after?)'" We don’t really know the recipe’s origins, although I’m certain that it’s not a Denise Landis original. The subheading tells you a bit about how often I asked my mom to make it, and about my general behavior through childhood.

Shrimp etouffee beauty shot, with rice
Vicky Wasik

Shrimp Dish was a dish of celebration, something served on birthdays and other special occasions. It’s an étouffée made with a caramel-colored roux, which binds the sweetness of alliums, like onion, scallions, and garlic, with the savory punch of tomato paste. A light stock made from shrimp shells thins the sauce to an almost gravy-like consistency, and lemon juice adds an acidic bite. Seasoning is scant: salt and pepper, sugar, a bay leaf, and a dash of Tabasco. It’s traditionally served with plain white rice, but I’ve found I like it with fragrant basmati. And it’s even better the next day, which, in my experience, is not often the case with seafood.

I started making Shrimp Dish for myself shortly after I moved out to attend college. Because of my dismal performance in high school, I was admitted on probationary status, and thus wasn’t eligible for campus housing. I rented a junior one-bedroom that overlooked the wide central street running through the heart of Keene, New Hampshire. I had a small pot rack, which my mom hung for me; a butcher’s block my dad had made for himself when he was in college (the legs were four cast iron pipes that he had screwed into the bottom); and a junky, beige-colored stove with electric coils that were either stone-cold or ripping-hot. I stored my pot lids in the oven’s broiler drawer, because I didn’t know what a broiler was.

I’d make Shrimp Dish whenever frozen shrimp was on sale, the sweet spot being $10 for a two-pound bag, and it quickly became my go-to recipe for whenever I invited girls over for third or fourth dates. It was one of the very first things I could cook with any confidence, and it was the first recipe I felt comfortable modifying to fit my own preferences. I like to cook it a little bit less than the hour of simmering the original recipe calls for, and I cook the stock for longer to coax more flavor out of the delicate shrimp shells. Not huge changes, but for a kid whose mantra in the kitchen had always been "follow the recipe," they were a big step forward.

The dish is also the first recipe I’ve ever felt that I was better at preparing than my mother, who is, needless to say, tremendously talented in the kitchen. While the old cliché says that hunger is the best seasoning, I think that pride can heighten the taste and sweeten one’s experience of a dish, too. My mom can still do a lot of things in the kitchen that I can’t, but this is a dish I feel I can make from muscle memory, one whose exact flavor is imprinted in my mind.

These days, when I go home to visit my family and my mom asks what she can cook, I pick things that I might not make for myself. But more commonly, my mom takes the night off, and I’m the one in front of the stove. My mother’s Shrimp Dish, the one I used to eat with my family at my childhood table, is just a cherished memory. I don’t need her to make it for me anymore.