Friday, March 8, 2013

Shrimp Wiggle

by Sheila Connolly

When I was young, my mother had a couple of favorite quick and easy dishes.  Baked beans, hot dogs and canned brown bread was one of them (I I never liked it much), and Shrimp Wiggle was another (I did like that).

She didn't make up the name.  In fact, the dish has a long history.  One of its first documented appearances was in an 1898 edition of the Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, and it popped up regularly in cookbooks after that.  The main ingredient was (as you might guess) shrimp, usually in a cream sauce.  Most recipes, beginning with Fannie's, add peas (canned), and the glop was often served over toast. (Some versions suggest adding tomato soup or chopped tomatoes.)

The Fannie Farmer recipe from the 1947 edition is this:  one cup shrimp, 2 cups white sauce, 1 cup cooked peas; combine, season, reheat. My mother's version was slightly updated, but still about as simple as it could be.  You needed one bag of thawed frozen shrimp (back in those days they were cheap; now they're running about $1 an ounce—ouch!), one can of Campbell's Cream of Shrimp Soup, some milk to dilute the soup; put all of these in a double boiler and heat until the whole thing is warmed through; pour over rice and serve.  Doesn't get much easier, does it?

Oh, I forgot one important element. My mother was a good plain cook but not very adventurous.  Her idea of dressing up a dish was to add a dash of vermouth (she liked martinis, so we always had vermouth on hand).  You could add sherry if you're out of vermouth.

This dish can be recreated today, and I still have the double boiler. This is how it turned out. (I used the cheapest frozen shrimp I could find.)

Ah, those were simpler times, but things have changed.  In these days of fresh local food, the canned soup would be a no-no (not that I'm slamming Campbell's—the label says it includes food starch, MSG, soy protein concentrate and yeast extract, but not a lot of nasty chemicals).  I'll admit that the shrimp, both fresh(ish) and frozen, have been flown in all the way from Thailand or Vietnam, but I will also note that the fresh ones cost half as much as the frozen ones.  I guess airfare is expensive even for shrimp.

So I deconstructed my mother's version and made a roux-based cream sauce, using fish stock (all right, store-bought) and cream, and sautéed a few shallots gently, and lovingly peeled the softly glistening shrimp and gently folded them all together, and called it:

Crevettes Tortillants a la Crème
(in case you haven't guessed, the "tortillant" is the wiggle part)

1 pound fresh medium-sized shrimp, peeled and deveined (heads removed)

1 shallot, finely chopped
2 Tblsp butter

3 Tblsp flour
3 Tblsp butter
1 cup fish stock
1 cup heavy cream

1/2 tsp tomato paste

White pepper

Peel and clean your shrimp and set aside

In a sauté pan, melt the butter and gentle cook the chopped shallot until translucent.  Add the shrimp and sauté briefly until they turn pink (do not overcook). Remove from heat.

In a separate saucepan, melt the additional 3 Tblsp butter.  Add the flour and whisk together, then cook over medium heat for 2-3 minutes.  Pour in the liquids, whisking steadily to prevent lumps.  Blend in tomato paste (this is for color rather than flavor). Cook over low heat for another five minutes.  Taste for seasoning.

Pour the cream sauce over the cooked shrimp and simmer briefly to combine the flavors.  Serve over steamed white rice.

Of course you may dress this up with herbs if you wish, and canned peas if you must.

I served both versions to my test audience (i.e., my husband).  We agreed that the modern version tastes better, but the earlier one is quite acceptable, and you can't beat it for speed. 

Oh, and if I haven't mentioned it before, my short story, "Kept in the Dark," (in Blood Moon, from Level Best Books), has been nominated for an Agatha Award.  It's about a mushroom farmer.


  1. Congratulations on your nomination!!!! Your version of Shrimp Wiggle sounds so much better...keep the vermouth in the recipe. I have some shrimp shells in my freezer to use for the stock. My fish person at my grocery store said that all shrimp arrives frozen, they just thaw the ones in the 'fresh fish' case!!! Thanks for the recipe.

  2. Way to go on your nomination. You brought back a childhood memory for me with the canned brown bread. Mama used to get it to. She'd slice it and butter one side then grill it. Sometimes she'd put cinnamon and sugar on it. The baked beans she always bought came in a "bean jar". The Shrimp Wiggle sounds really good!

  3. Sheila - Happy congrats on the nomination ~ well deserved. Your origin story of the Shrimp Wiggle is wonderful, although any dish that involves a crustacean and the word "wiggle" does make me a little nervous. On the other hand, the Disney theme park chefs might just steal this for their Little Mermaid restaurant. In any event, thanks for giving me a laugh and a fun recipe with my morning Joe.

    ~ Cleo

  4. Congrats on the nomination! I love the name Shrimp Wiggle and must try this. Shrimp, heavy cream, butter, vermouth...what's not to love? But I have never heard of canned brown bread! *off to Google*

  5. I rant every time I go to our market and look at fish--they're almost all "previously frozen" and flown in from all over the globe. It wouldn't surprise me that the shrimp were frozen too. At least somebody had taken off the heads and removed the black thing down the back. I'm willing to remove what's left of the shell to save half the cost.

    Ramona, years ago the go-to brand for brown bread was S.S. Pierce, which I think no longer exists. It may have been unique to New England or the east coast. I have seen recipes for brown bread that call for baking it in a clean can--kind of fun.

  6. Sounds delish! But what makes it "wiggle" and how do you put it in there?

  7. Your recipes always have such entertaining back stories! No wonder you're a successful writer!

    This sounds good enough to make tonight and that's what's going to happen. Peeled shrimp were half price this week at my grocery store ...almost as if they knew this was coming!

  8. Sheila, congratulations on your nomination! I'll be cheering you on!

    I love the name Shrimp Wiggle! So cute. Your version does sound better. I have to try this.

    BTW, I share your rant about the seafood available. Half the case at my grocery store is from Hawaii. We don't fish on the East Coast anymore?


  9. Beans and brown bread on Saturday nights for dinner. B&M Company from Portland Maine makes baked beans and brown bread (in a can). I'm having it tonight along with some grilled hot dogs. My mom made shrimp wiggle when we were growing up in Western Mass., original recipe from Maine. She used shrimp in a can, peas in a can, cream sauce made from evaporated milk and spread it over saltine crackers mostly instead of toast. Always fed the family of 7 in the winter time once every other week with no complaints from anyone. Was cheap, easy and traditional! We all turned out pretty normal! (I think??)