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The Life of the Party

October 28, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

Every dish has a life of its own, beginning with a hope and ending in a sometimes related reality. In between, as in all lives, you just kind of make it up as you go along.

Visiting the Saturday farmers' market in Torrance a couple of weeks ago with a friend from out of town, we saw some little head-on ridgeback shrimp from Santa Barbara for sale at the Dry Dock stand.

The ridgeback shrimp is not as visually impressive as its larger, flashier neighbor, the Santa Barbara spot prawn, which is several times as big and often comes with its legs thickly coated with bright orange roe. But ridgies have at least one major advantage over spots: Unless spots are handled just right, they go very mushy very quickly. There's an enzyme in the head section that begins to diffuse through the rest of the body as soon as the shrimp dies.

Moral: Either buy live spot prawns or buy ones that have been beheaded.

This is not to say that ridgeback shrimps don't have their own shortcomings. These don't have to do with eating, though, but with cooking. Their shell is thicker and stiffer than other shrimp, which makes them a chore to peel.

And maybe my fingers aren't what they should be, but I think the shells are also sharper than other shrimps'. After peeling ridgies, my fingers usually are covered with little nicks and gouges--always fun when you run into a bit of salt or a little lemon juice. Still, the flesh is so sweet, this doesn't seem to affect how often I cook them.

My friend had never tasted these shrimp (they don't turn up often at restaurants, no doubt for the above reason), and she was dying to try them. So we picked up a couple of pounds. On the way home, we began to talk about what we could do with them.

"There's nothing wrong with just butter and garlic," she said.

I was thinking about serving them with pasta in a little tomato and crushed red pepper; that was how I had them one time in the Italian region of Liguria, where the local gambero rosso seems very similar to our little ridgebacks.

"Maybe some kind of stew," she said.

"How about if we do a butter, garlic and white wine thing and then serve them in the bottom of a bowl lined with toasted bread to sop up the juice, like mussels," I said, stuck in a starch-and-shrimp state of mind.

Then I thought about a dish I'd had the night before at Alain Giraud's Lavande restaurant in Santa Monica--a brilliant stew of cuttlefish and potato in a barely thickened sauce. The contrast in textures between the softness of the potato and the slight rubberiness of the cuttlefish was fantastic.

"That would be perfect," she agreed.

The only problem was that I hadn't bought any potatoes.

"What about those beans?" she asked.

Bingo! Off to the side at one farmer's stand I had noticed some of this year's first dried pinquito and pinto beans in a bin. A little snooping turned up half a dozen other types of dried beans stacked in boxes beneath them. Among them was something I thought must be a joke, a mauve runner. I know scarlet runners well: I've grown them in my backyard. But mauve? The idea seemed so funny I had to try some.

Originally I'd intended to serve the beans with a leg of lamb, but this idea seemed much more promising. The only problem was how to combine the beans, which cook for hours, with the shrimp, which cook in minutes. Obviously, they couldn't be cooked together, but what about making a stock of the shrimp shells and cooking the beans in that, then sauteing the shelled shrimp and combining everything at the last minute?

At first that seemed like a good idea, but the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. Something about joining the sweetness of the shrimp stock and the beans, which have a kind of earthy bitterness, just didn't sound right. Instead, I thought I would use the shrimp stock to lightly bind the beans and shellfish after they'd been cooked separately.

So I cooked the beans and peeled the shrimp. The beans took a little longer than I'd expected and absorbed quite a bit more liquid. I had to keep adding boiling water to keep them from drying out. In the end, I learned that mauve runners are a lot like scarlet runners, only a lot more so. They're bigger--the size of a lima bean--and they have a stronger chestnut flavor.

The shrimp--after much cursing and complaining during peeling--ended up needing a little extra work too. Normally I don't bother deveining shrimp. As long as the sand vein is small, it's merely cosmetic. But in about half of these guys, it was huge.

Still, removing the vein isn't that much of a problem. The easiest way is to lay a sharp knife flat on a work surface and then, holding the handle down with one hand, run the back of the shrimp against the cutting edge with the other (using a kind of rotating motion, necessarily). The vein is just under the skin and doing it this way helps you avoid cutting too deeply. Once the vein is exposed, you can pull it out with your fingers. A quick rinse in cold water gets the last of it.

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