Celebrate Bastille Day With Pastis Shrimp And A Crusty Baguette

Today is ‘The National Day of France,’ better known as Bastille Day. It is a national holiday in France, much like July Fourth in the USA, and similarly celebrated with fireworks and parades. It is also a “holiday” that many USA bars and restaurants—particularly ones that specialize in French cuisine—use as a reason to promote their place similar to St. Patrick’s Day.

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When I think of Bastille Day, I think about Pastis. Pastis is the anise-flavored aperitif that turns cloudy when you add water and is particularly refreshing in the hot summer months. It has deep roots in the south of France and is thought to aid digestion. I can personally attest to its miraculous powers to calm jitters and nervous stomachs and generally make me smile.  I affectionately refer to it as my ‘happy juice’—it never fails to put me in a good mood. I love to drink Pastis [and it’s cousin Pernod] and I love to cook with it too.

There are many good Pastis options and the most common brand in this country is Ricard. This makes sense because it was the first commercialized Pastis and is the Pastis with the widest distribution. Some people characterize Pernod as a Pastis, but it isn’t the same.

The visual difference between Ricard (Pastis) and Pernod is the color, pale caramel vs. chartreuse green, but the real difference is how they are made—Pernod is distilled and Pastis is macerated.  Pernod is a distilled spirit made from star anise and fennel, and is low in licorice. Ricard markets itself as Pastis de Marseille, and is a formula of star anise, licorice and other herbs and spices that is macerated in a base spirit.  

The differences between Pastis and Pernod are confusing, but I have heard many a Frenchman argue the finer points to prove that they are not the same. As an American who has drunk Pastis for many years, and even collects it, I both accept and understand their point.  

Regardless, Pernod is a good substitute for Pastis, and in some ways is even better for cooking. I love adding Pernod to seafood dishes, creamed spinach and oysters Rockefeller; adding a splash to Italian sausage and broccoli rabe pasta, as well as sprinkling over vanilla ice cream and adding to a glaze for cookies and pound cake.  Pernod is a useful kitchen staple and is great paired with all shellfish, chicken, mushrooms and spinach—anything that is good seasoned with tarragon.

I drink Pastis more than I cook with it, with one big exception—my Pastis Shrimp. 

I love big fat jumbo shrimp in the shell. And, since I drink Pastis, I always have it on hand. The herbaceous flavors of anise and licorice, and the other herbs and spices compliment and accentuate the shrimp in a delicious and unexpected way. If you don’t have Pastis on hand, but have its cooking cousin, Pernod, use that. 

I leave the shrimp in the shell to protect it from the heat and because much of the flavor is in the shell and shrimp cooked in the shell simply tastes better.  The shrimp can cook longer if left in the shell—absorbing more of the flavors of the fragrant sauce—and it is fun to peel and eat the shrimp once they are cooked. I place the shrimp in the bottom of a shallow oval pan or “gratin” dish and pour a full-flavored potion of Pastis, olive oil [instead of butter], garlic, fennel seed, green peppercorns, tarragon and coarse sea salt over the shrimp.  The seasonings are hallmarks of the food of Provence and perfume the shrimp as they cook. 

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Once the shrimp are soaked in the sauce, I place the gratin dish in a pre-heated grill or oven, and let them cook for 15-20 minutes, depending on their size.  You will know that the shrimp are done when they are curled up and their color is pink. It is better to take them out a little under-done than over-done as over-done shrimp can be soft and mealy. The smell is positively intoxicating! 

Serve the shrimp hot-off-the-grill in the gratin dish and soak up the sauce with a crusty French baguette.  If you are like me, once you try this dish, you will make it over and over again.

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Pastis Shrimp

This is my French-flavored version of peel ‘n eat shrimp.  The sauce is delicious and warrants a whole baguette just for sopping up!  If you prefer to cook this indoors, preheat your oven to 425°F.

Grilling Method:  Indirect-Medium High

Serves 6

2/3      cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for shrimp

¼         cup Pastis (either Ricard or another brand of Pastis, or Pernod)

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8          cloves of fresh garlic, grated

2          teaspoons fennel or anise seeds

2          teaspoons whole green peppercorns

¼         cup chopped fresh tarragon, plus more for serving

24-26  jumbo shrimp or tiger shrimp in the shells (the bigger, the better—about 1.5 pounds)

2          teaspoons coarse sea salt

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            Crusty baguette

Whisk together the oil, Pastis, garlic, fennel, peppercorns and tarragon.  Toss cleaned and dry shrimp in a bowl with a little oil and the salt.  Lay the shrimp in one layer in a shallow gratin dish or casserole (a Pyrex is just fine).  Pour the pastis mixture evenly over the shrimp.

Place the gratin dish in the center of the cooking grate (or in your oven) and cook about 15-20 minutes total, taking the dish out of the grill (or oven) and turning the shrimp over in the dish once halfway through the cooking time.  

Take the dish out of the grill or oven as soon as the shrimp are done.  You know that they are done, when they are pink, their tails are curled and they are just cooked through.  You do not want to over cook them.  

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Serve the dish family style on a table spread with newspapers or something that washes easily—this dish can get messy!  This is my French-flavored version of peel ‘n eat shrimp!

And don’t forget to sop up the sauce with a crusty baguette.

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