The squeamish ones, those who did not eat the heads from their fried shrimp at dinner on Friday night - stir fried whole shrimp in XO sauce and Thai coconut soup - have done us a favor. They left us with the most flavorful and delicate part of what I believe is an occasionally misunderstood ingredient. I think that shrimp are misunderstood because the rich and tender bodies are only half of the point.
Some folks have a hard time eating faces, but if you look around the world - from broiled salmon head and hamachi kama in Japan, to headcheese in France, to halibut cheek in China, and to whole roast pork in...well... everywhere - you will find many sumptuous and memorable flavors. All well worth the "look your food in the eye" factor.
The "look your food in the eye" factor is the very center of what I call The Diner's Dilemma, which is: How am I to feel about the living creatures that I eat? I still don't really have a comfortable answer for that, so today I like to use the Native American response: Use every part of the animal to the best of your ability and treat the animal (the ingredient) with respect. Also, I enjoy every morsel. Waste not, want not and all.
So, with the moral issues out of the way, the shrimp heads sauteed momentarily at the bottom of a stock pot with ginger, scallions, half an onion, coriander seeds, galangal, five spice powder, a bay leaf, garlic, two teaspoons of XO sauce and 3 quarts of water. This was gently boiled for 2 hours, adding water every 30 minutes or so when the contents had reduced by half.
This boiled down to about 1 quart of lightly flavored broth which was strained through a chiniose. After straining the solid remnants were pressed to force the remaining liquid back into the pot with the rest of the broth. To this was added about 2 cups of half-and-half. It should have been heavy cream, but healthier aspirations won out. This reduced by one quarter then finished with two tablespoons of butter and was set aside for a few moments before service.
Pan-fried chicken dumplings went into a wide, shallow bowl followed by the soup and a garnish of sliced scallion.
The soup was light and flavorful. The shrimp heads definitely polished an unique facet in the flavor and the herbs and spices were pretty well balanced, being warm and savory and not too bright. A roux and some heavy cream would have made it a solid wintertime soup but it was nice for a warmish fall afternoon. Next time it will get sauteed shrimp for some variety in the texture.
Total cook time was 2.5 hours. Total work time was 25 minutes.