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Say spring with shrimp

As delicate spring vegetables finally make their appearance after a long winter, our thoughts turn to shrimp. What other seafood is so versatile – it speaks every language, from paella to stir-fry – and so easily transforms a salad, soup or risotto into a meal?

Skewer it, saute it, grill it – no more than a few minutes and shrimp’s done.

Shrimp is one of those foods, says Baltimore International College chef instructor Michael Wagner, “that really take on the flavor of things you’re pairing them with really well. I think the best preparations for shrimp are the simplest.”

Chef Cindy Wolf, whose Charleston restaurant in Baltimore often serves the classic combination of shrimp and grits, has quick ideas for using the shellfish in spring. One is to serve sauteed shrimp along with finely chopped leeks and shallots on a chopped yolk of a boiled egg and asparagus cooked in a little butter. Or brush grilled shrimp with lime juice and chopped chives and shallots, and create a salad with fresh mache.

Shrimp cocktail is a simple, luxurious preparation you can make even easier with a technique from Ina Garten’s new book, “Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics.” Instead of poaching the shrimp, Garten roasts them in the oven with olive oil, salt and pepper. By the time you’ve whipped up the homemade cocktail sauce, they’re ready for dipping.

Just about the only thing you shouldn’t do with shrimp is cook it too long, and that happens often, chefs say. “There’s such a big difference between a properly cooked piece of shrimp and one that’s been cooked to death,” says Wagner. Look for the shrimp to turn pink and for their tails to curl, but not too much.

Here are a few tips for making great shrimp:

Size: Confused by terms like “medium” or “jumbo” when buying shrimp? Look for recipes that specify the count per pound. Wolf and Wagner say 16 to 20 per pound is a good all-purpose size.

Prefozen: Most shrimp has been frozen before it’s sold, so it’s OK – maybe even preferable – to buy it that way. If you can get shrimp that is individually quick-frozen, it will be easier to thaw just what you need. Use thawed shrimp within a day or two.

Heads on: If you’re lucky enough to find fresh shrimp with heads on, use them right away – the heads make them more perishable, says Wolf. Be sure heads are clear, with no dark spots.

Deveining: Always devein your shrimp, but don’t cut too far into the shrimp unless you’re butterflying it, Wolf says.

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