After posting about kofta a few days ago, a few of my Coptic Christian friends urged me to post something that can work for the Advent fast that lasts for forty days before Christmas, which we celebrate on January 7th. Orthodox Christians have kind of an interesting fasting schedule. The Lenten fast before Easter requires adherence to a completely vegan diet, which is kind of difficult for me because I can’t imagine cooking without ghee or not using homemade chicken broth in my soups – also because nowadays, I’m trying to limit my intake of grains and legumes. The Nativity fast is a little easier to handle because seafood is permitted, though all other animal products aren’t traditionally eaten.
I’ll be posting several vegan and seafood dishes – all with a Middle Eastern bent of course – over the next few weeks until we gear up to celebrate Christmas. For the first of such recipes, I’d like to introduce you to a combination made in heaven: shrimp with dill seasoning (and numerous other tantalizing spices that go oh-so-well with the delicately sweet-salty taste of wild shrimp). If you’re like me, you love seafood when it tastes fresh and not at all fishy or stale. Fresh seafood can be likened to freshly baked apple pie – okay, maybe that was a bad analogy. But here’s the point I’m trying to make: there’s nothing quite like seafood that tastes fresh – I realize I’ve used the word ‘fresh’ three times within a sentence, precisely because I can’t think of a better word to describe the ideal seafood. Shrimp in particular is one of my favorites: light as a feather and yet packed with a subtle flavor; as well as nutrient-dense and full of healthy vitamins like B12, tryptophan, selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Back to the dish I’m about to show you here. I first made this dish over a year ago when we were having a couple over for dinner during the Advent fast. Not having much experience with making mouth-watering seafood dishes, I gave my aunt Amany a call after recalling that she had made a couple of impressive seafood dishes at a family dinner a few months back, including one with shrimp. I remember thinking to myself “this shrimp is flavorful without being overly salty and its texture juicy without being rubbery” (a rubbery texture is a sure sign that it’s been overcooked). The mixture of Mediterranean-inspired ingredients she used – tomatoes, onions, seasoning, and the star of the dish – dill or shabat in Arabic – perfectly complemented the taste of the shrimp. I intently listened to her narrate the recipe over the phone and followed it faithfully; sure enough, the dish was a hit at our seafood-themed dinner!
A word about seafood: There aren’t that many fish in the sea (that are acceptable to eat)
Since I don’t live close to the ocean, finding a local source of sustainably caught seafood is quite the challenge. I haven’t yet invested in looking for the best resources in my area, but I do know that I love blue sea is an online seafood shop for sustainably-sourced seafood. I’m excited to give them a try soon! In the meantime, take the time to find out which type of seafood is healthiest to eat. As a general rule, wild-caught seafood is almost always better than farmed (the exception being wild-caught fish from a highly polluted region), for many of the same reasons that pastured and grass-fed animals are better than confined, conventionally-raised animals: farmed sea animals are forced to live in cramped pens, and are fed an unnatural diet of corn and soy (yes, they make the fish eat that too – and when was the last time you saw a corn field growing near the ocean floor?). Additionally, a lot of antibiotics are used to ‘prevent disease’, which means that these antibiotics also end up in you if you eat farmed seafood. This causes antibiotic resistance and a host of other health concerns. Additionally there is talk about genetically engineering farmed salmon too, which poses a whole lot of other unpredictable (many of them unstudied) effects.
To evade this drama, try to choose wild-caught seafood that is sourced from clean waters. That means trying to figure out where even the ‘wild’ seafood was caught. It’s a good idea to avoid Gulf shrimp in the U.S. because of the 2010 oil spill. Seafood from Asian countries imported into the States is very loosely regulated, and is almost always farmed. Japan’s nuclear leak earlier this year has been found to affect the ocean wildlife in terms of radiation.
For shrimp specifically, I found that wild is generally better than farmed (especially because even ‘eco-labels’ on supposedly-sustainably farmed fish aren’t that meaningful), and domestic is almost always better than imported. If you’re in the US, it looks like Pink Shrimp (from the Pacific NW) and Spot Prawns (from British Columbia or Alaska) are two good wild-caught options. I admit I didn’t know about all this until recently, so the shrimp I used for this was probably farmed and imported from Thailand. Well, now I know for the future, and I’m looking forward to exploring more sustainable options!
My Aunt Amany’s Shrimp with Dill Seasoning Recipe (Gamberi bil Shabat)
Prep Time: 20 minutes for thawing and 20 minutes for marinating
Cook Time: ~ 12 min on medium heat or until it turns orangy-pink
- 1 lb wild-caught large shrimp (I used frozen, but if you can access fresh – not thawed – by all means use that instead)
- 2 large onions, sliced in quarters
- 1-2 tomatoes, diced
- 1 bunch of fresh dill, chopped
- 1 tablespoon old bay seasoning (preferably homemade)
- 1 tablespoon organic basil
- 1 teaspoon organic thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon organic oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon organic garlic powder
- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon Himalayan or other unrefined mineral sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- apple cider vinegar and flour for ‘washing’ shrimp
(1) Thaw the shrimp if frozen for 15-20 min.
(2) To get rid of any fishy taste, rinse shrimp under running water and a little vinegar and a little flour even while still frozen. Leave for five minutes, then rinse well to remove any remaining vinegar or flour.
(3) Chop up onions, tomatoes and dill. Add to rinsed shrimp along with the olive oil and spices (old bay seasoning, basil, thyme, oregano, garlic powder, salt and pepper). Mix well, and leave to marinate for 20 minutes. You can leave it for a bit longer to absorb the flavors better.
(4) Add to a wok or pot and cook for 7-10 minutes on medium heat, stirring a few times throughout, then lowering the heat and stirring for a few more minutes. Don’t leave the shrimp to cook for more than a total of 12 minutes or so; otherwise, you run the risk of the shrimp having a rubbery texture. As soon as the shrimp turns into a bright orangy-pink color, you’ll know that it’s completely cooked!
(5) Mix it well, and serve right after cooking while still hot. It’s also quite tasty when cold, but room-temperature shrimp cooked this way isn’t very spectacular. Since it has such a short cook time, try to finish the dish right before serving, after the table has been set and all the other dishes/salads complete. Bon apetit!