published Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

Celebrate spring with shrimp

Today marks the first day of spring ... the vernal equinox in scientific terms. That means the days will start getting longer and, for some reason, our palates change course, wanting foods of a less-filling nature than during the cold, short days of winter when we hibernate and eat heavier fare. It's time to spring into action and lighten up.

Many of you will head south in coming weeks for vacation and arrive back home with a cooler full of shrimp. Emeril Lagasse came up with a new appetizer perfect for spring celebrations. I recently packed some shrimp for a casual gathering away from home and assembled them onsite, which was quite simple. The presentation wasn't as elegant as it would have been had I put them together in my kitchen and served them on a silver tray, but the flavor was all there.

Shrimp on a Ritz

2 tablespoons plus 1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1 lemon, juiced, plus lemon halves

1 tablespoon plus 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 cups ice cubes

1 bay leaf

20 small (36/40 count) shrimp, peeled and deveined, about 1/2 pound

4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

1 teaspoon minced green onion, white part only, plus 1 tablespoon thinly sliced on a bias scallion, green part only

40 Ritz crackers

2 tablespoons finely diced celery, for garnish

2 tablespoons finely diced red bell pepper, for garnish

In a large bowl, combine 2 cups cool water, 1 tablespoon sea salt, lemon juice and halves and 1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper. Stir to dissolve the salt. Add ice cubes. Set ice bath aside.

Fill a medium saucepan with water and add 1 tablespoon sea salt, 1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper and a bay leaf. Bring to a boil. Add shrimp and return to a boil. Immediately remove saucepan from heat and allow the shrimp to remain in the hot water until just cooked through, about 1 minute longer. Using a slotted spoon, transfer shrimp to ice bath until completely cool.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, stir to combine cream cheese, mayonnaise, lemon zest, parsley, minced green onion and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag fitted with 1/2-inch plain tip; refrigerate 15 minutes.

Remove shrimp from ice-water bath and pat dry with paper towels. Halve shrimp lengthwise; set aside.

Place crackers on a large platter. Top each cracker with a shrimp half and pipe each with about 1 teaspoon cream-cheese mixture. Garnish with celery, red bell pepper and sliced green onion. Makes 20 servings (2 per serving).

I recently took a trip north to Jefferson City about 30 miles east of Knoxville. I'd never been before ... it's not exactly on the beaten path. But it's a great little town and home to Carson-Newman College, so I'm sure it's familiar to many readers.

I had the opportunity to stop for lunch while there and was quite taken with a new little restaurant, The Creek Cafe. If you go, I would suggest ordering the Turkey Basil Panini and a bowl of the white chili. The panini is flavored with a delicious basil pesto and served on grilled sourdough. The chili is made from scratch and the flavors of chicken, beans and seasonings marry beautifully. The chili also gets a nice crunch from the colorful strips of tortillas garnishing the top. The Creek Cafe is open daily for lunch and dinner, except on Sundays. The address is 110 East Old Andrew Johnson Highway. If you're planning on taking a large group, call ahead and let them know at 865-308-9084.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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