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Eric Akis: Decadent Shrimp Newburg stands the test of time

I was in my basement last week, home to years of odds and ends, and came across an old binder of recipes I learned when I was a chef’s apprentice. One was shrimp Newburg.
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Shrimp Newburg was first publicly served at New York's famed Delmonico's restaurant in the 1880s.

I was in my basement last week, home to years of odds and ends, and came across an old binder of recipes I learned when I was a chef’s apprentice. One was shrimp Newburg.

Looking it over, my first thought was: Why is it called Newburg?

I thought Newburg sounded like a coastal town in New England, and perhaps it was named after it. Now, really curious, I investigated and discovered I was sort of right — at least, in the fact that it was created on the East Coast, though not in a quaint seaside town.

It was, in fact, a big city, New York, and the dish was not named after it; it was named after a person whose name was not actually Newburg.

Confused?

Let me explain.

According to the food history website, foodtimeline.org, the dish was first publicly served at New York’s famed Delmonico’s restaurant in the 1880s. The crustacean first used in it was lobster, not shrimp, and the dish was among the most popular ones served in the American Pavilion at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Not surprising since it was an ultra rich and creamy seafood dish loaded with lobster.

There are a few versions of how the dish got its name, but all seem to start with its original name, lobster a la Wenburg. It was called that in honour of the person who created the dish, Ben Wenburg. Although some sources say his last name was spelled Wenberg.

Lobster a la Wenburg was a hit at Delmonico’s and it became a standby of the after-theatre suppers that were in vogue when the dish was introduced. One story suggests Wenburg enjoyed the attention he was getting, but perhaps a little too much, as he had a major falling out with restaurant owner Charles Delmonico. Another source says he simply did not want the dish named after him.

Whatever story is true, the name for the dish was slightly adjusted by the owner, by reversing the spelling of “Wen” to “New.” When that was done, lobster a la Wenburg, became known as lobster a la Newburg.

Over the years lobster a la Newburg, or simply lobster Newburg, began to be served at restaurants around North America. Other versions of the dish also simmered to life, such as seafood Newburg, which uses a range of seafood, and shrimp Newburg, where that seafood stars in the dish as it does in today’s recipe.

It’s a divine creation that I like to serve with steamed rice and asparagus or green beans. The recipe serves four, but could be doubled if you’re feeding a larger crowd during the holidays.

 

How to peel and devein shrimp or prawns

• Hold the tip of tail of a shrimp (or prawn) in one hand. Slip the thumb of your other hand under the shell between its swimmerets (little legs).

• Pull off the shell, but leave the very tip of the tail in place.

• With a small paring knife, make a lengthwise slit along the back of the shrimp. Now pull out, or rinse out with cold water, the dark vein. Pat shrimp dry and it’s ready to use.

 

Shrimp Newburg 

Plump shrimp, sautéed and served in a rich and creamy sauce. Shrimp, most often labelled prawns on West Coast of Canada when large, are priced and categorized by the number they yield per pound, once the head is removed. The large shrimp used in this recipe were 21/25 count, meaning that’s how many shrimp a pound of them will contain.

 

Preparation: 30 minutes

Cooking time: About 50 minutes

Makes: Four servings

 

For the shrimp and stock

24 wild large shrimp or prawns

3 cups chicken or fish stock

2 tsp olive oil

For the Newburg and to finish

2 Tbsp butter

1 Tbsp olive oil

1/2 cup finely chopped shallots (about 2 small, or 1 large)

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

1 Tbsp all-purpose flour

2 Tbsp tomato paste

1 tsp paprika

1/4 tsp dried tarragon pinch

• pinch ground cayenne pepper

1/2 cup dry sherry, white wine or sparkling wine (see Note)

1 cup shrimp stock

1/2 cup whipping cream

• salt and white pepper to taste

1 to 2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley or sliced green onion, or a mix of both

Peel and devein shrimp (see side bar). Set the shells aside. Pat shrimp dry, set on a plate and refrigerate until needed.

Heat oil in a medium pot set over medium, to medium-high heat. Add the shrimp shells and cook stirring occasionally, for five minutes, until the shells are bright pink and almost crispy.

Add the stock and bring to a gentle simmer (small bubbles should just break on the surface). Simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes, and then strain this shrimp stock into a glass-measuring cup. If your stock has overly reduced and you don’t have the 1 cup needed, top it up with a bit of water.

Place the butter and oil in a wide skillet set over medium-high heat. When the butter is melted, add half the shrimp and cook until just cooked through, about one minute per side.

Remove pan from the heat, and then with tongs, lift the shrimp out of the pan and on to a clean plate. Set pan back over the heat and cook the rest of the shrimp this way.

Set the pan back on the heat again. Add the shallots and garlic and cook and stir 90 seconds. Stir in the flour, tomato paste, paprika, cayenne and tarragon and cook one minute more.

Slowly whisk in the sherry (or wine) and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is thick. Now whisk in the 1 cup shrimp stock and cream. Bring the sauce to a simmer, and simmer until lightly thickened. Season the sauce with salt and white pepper.

Mix in the reserved shrimp and heat through two minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and/or green onion and serve.

Eric’s options: If you don’t want to use alcohol, simply replace the sherry or wine with more stock.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His latest is The Great Rotisserie Chicken Cookbook (Appetite by Random House). His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.