“For spring the chromius is best;
The anthias in winter;
But of all the fish the daintiest
Is a young shrimp in fig leaves.”
— Ananius from The Deipnosophists

The first recipe I come across in our textbook, “The Delectable Past” by Esther B. Aresty is called Shrimp in Leaves. She writes that it’s much easier to come across grape leaves, but I rarely do anything the easy way, so I attempt to find fig leaves instead. Come on… I mean, grape leaves are easy enough to find– the ubiquitous dolmade, for example. Those little tasty bits of rice and herbs wrapped up in a brined grape leaf? But fig leaves, therein lies a challenge!

According to The Produce Hunter, “the fragrance of Fig Leaves is reminiscent of coconut.” This, my friends, would make a natural match for shrimp, yeah?

Ingredients

Raw jumbo shrimp, shelled and vein removed
Canned grape leaves (1 leaf per shrimp), or fresh fig leaves
A marinade of 2 parts vinegar to 1 part oil
(for 20 shrimp: 2 tablespoons oil and 4 tablespoons vinegar)
Pinch of oregano in the marinade

The recipe’s method calls for lapping the leaf around the shrimp, and arrange them close together in a shallow baking dish. Of course, she says to place the “lapped” leaf side down to prevent opening during cooking. For, at least some of you might know, shrimp (especially deveined ones) have the tendency to expand in a 375 degree oven. So, what I might also suggest is leaving a little shrimp leeway–room for expansion. Kind of like Thanksgiving Day pants. But more like your mom’s than your uncle’s.

Who were the Deipnosophists, anyway?

Before I get into actually cooking this recipe, some research is in order. Deipnosophists, according to our text, is translated as “Banquet of the Learned,” and this text was complied around 230 A.D. According to our friend, Wikipedia, Ulpian was the “host of a leisurely banquet whose main purpose is literary, historical and antiquarian conversation.” Doing a bit of searching online, I also find that the sophists were a “class of itinerant intellectuals who taught courses in ‘excellence’ or ‘virtue,’ speculated about the nature of language and culture and employed rhetoric to achieve their purposes, generally to persuade or convince others.” More searching reveals that the modern day use of the word is essentially an argument based on the intent to deceive someone. Socrates was among the “anti-sophists” of his time.

Shrimp in Antiquity

Outside of the possibility that the poet Ananius was day-dreaming about his height-challenged servant dressed in Adam’s Calvin Klein’s, I suppose shrimp has always been popular. I also wonder what shrimp might have looked like back then. Were the normal shrimp we buy today considered the “bay shrimp” while prawns were considered regular sized? Were prawn ancestors the size of your head? I wonder because fig leaves are quite large, so I do wonder if Ms. Aresty was underestimating our fine swimming Sizzlerites by using common shrimp (21-30s) instead of prawns. Or maybe her intent was to introduce the cooks of the 1960’s to say, “Oh, shrimp–I eat shrimp. Maybe this book isn’t so intimidating after all!”

Oh, the Insanity (and the much gnashing of teeth)!

Finding fresh fig leaves is not as easy as it might sound, especially if you don’t live in the southern-ish parts of the United States–or California. I visited Whole Foods, Cost Plus World Market, and various Asian shops to find figs leaves… but alas, none was found. Grape leaves–grape leaves were in abundance. The people I asked (even gourmet food shops and cheese shops) said, “Fig leaves? What are you going to use those for?” and then “For cooking? I’ve never heard of that before!” sigh. At any rate, a friend of mine just happens to have relatives in California, so she has offered to get a dozen or so good shaped leaves for my culinary experiment.

It looks as if I’m going to have to wait for a little while, however. A bit more searching online reveals swiss chard leaves are also a good substitute. Ah, well… you win some, you have to wait some.

The Depressing modifications

I am a cook. I am an Aries. This means I am inpatient. I should have waited until I had the right ingredients. Oh well… whatever. Here’s the modified recipe:

Cook of Ages Shrimp in Chard Leaves

1 lb. 16-20 shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 head of swiss chard (8-10 whole leaves), deveined; “brined” in red wine vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper (brining optional)

A marinade of 2 parts vinegar to 1 part oil
(for 20 shrimp: 2 tablespoons oil and 4 tablespoons vinegar)
Pinch of oregano in the marinade

8-10 dried black mission figs (rehydrated with hot water for 20 minutes until soft), halved

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees F. In a swiss chard leaf, place two shrimp split-side up next to each other. Place one-half of the rehydrated fig inside each split. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roll, place in lightly greased baking dish. Continue until all shrimp and leaves are rolled up. Take marinade, and pour over the wrapped leaves. Place in oven for 20 minutes.

The eating

“Garnish each shrimp with a thin half-slice of lemon crossed with a thin strip of pimento. The diner will press the lemon juice into his leaf-wrapped shrimp with his fork if you demonstrate and lead the way–the leaves are edible, of course… serve it with sesame wafers.” I decided instead to serve this dish with a couple of slices of fresh avocado, and a rice pilaf made with chopped black greek olives, pimento, and chopped pecans.

This was good, and surprising in a way that it was both familiar and exotic at the same time. The avocados gave a much needed creaminess, and the lemon was unnecessary for much of the “zing” came from the vinegar. I will make this dish again in the future, using fresh fig leaves (and God willing), fresh figs!


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