by Louise Ayer
There is a precious little country in South America with 3 ½ million people and 30 million free range cows getting fat on the rich pampas grass that grows wild there. This young country, established in 1825, is called Uruguay, “river of the painted birds.” Uruguay is sandwiched between its two huge neighbors, Brazil and Argentina, and was created as a buffer between the two. Many people have never heard of Uruguay and don’t know its friendly, sweet, open people. They have not experienced its hundreds of miles of pristine coast or danced till dawn in Punta del Este or Montevideo. They don’t know that Uruguay is politically and economically stable and called the Little Switzerland of South America.
But I know Uruguay well. Twenty-five years ago, Diego Kraidelman, a passionate young Uruguayo who loves his country, and I created a land destination company bringing people to Uruguay for all kinds of reasons, to vacation, retire, host a wedding, or buy land. It was wonderful to travel to Uruguay, working in an entirely different culture and speaking Spanish. Punta Del Este, which the Uruguayos consider their jewel, is a peninsula bordered by the Atlantic to the East and Rio de la Plata to the West. Rio de la Plata is the widest river in the world, where at 125 miles wide it flows into the Atlantic at Punta del Este. You can watch the sunrise over the Atlantic in the morning and walk over to Rio de la Plata to watch the sunset in the evening. They are only separated by a few short blocks, so the views are spectacular from almost anywhere.
When we were in Punta del Este we would often go to dinner in Maldonado, a section of Punta del Este with loads of little hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Uruguay is famous for beef but also fresh and saltwater fish. One of my favorite restaurants in Maldonado is a little place whose sole raison d’etre dish is made of half a roasted kabocha squash filled with shrimp in a parmesan cream sauce, seasoned with a little garlic and rosemary. Eating this dish is a unique experience as one spoons out chunks of silky tender kabocha from the sides of the kabocha bowl with a mouthful of succulent shrimp. I don’t believe this restaurant even has a name, but it is always full, filled with people lined up to enjoy this beautiful dish.
Ingredients for shrimp stock:
1 stalk celery, cut in 2 or 3 pieces
1 medium carrot, cut in 2 or 3 pieces
Shells from 1 pound of shrimp
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 sprigs of fresh tarragon
1 shallot, peeled and cut in half
Ingredients for dish assembly:
2 Kabocha squash*, cut in half and seeds removed
3 tablespoons ghee
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound of raw shrimp, (25 to 30 count, peeled, shells saved)
1 large clove garlic, minced
½ cup shrimp broth, made from the shrimp shells
1 ½ cups whipping cream
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
½ cup shredded Parmigiano Reggiano
1 shallot, peeled and minced
½ sweet white onion like a Vidalia, chopped fine
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Salt and pepper, to taste
Make shrimp stock
In a small saucepan place the shrimp shells, celery stalk, carrot, thyme, tarragon, and the shallot cut in half. Fill the pot with water, bring to a boil, and then turn it down and place a cocked lid on the pan. Simmer for 1 ½ hours. Strain the liquid and set aside. Reserve ½ of this stock. You can freeze the rest.
Place the peeled shrimp in a small bowl 20 minutes before you are going to cook it. Toss the shrimp with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the minced garlic, and kosher salt. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 400F.
Paint the inside of each kabocha half with ghee. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Place kabocha halves in a roasting pan and roast at 400F until fork tender and browned, approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size of your squash. Remove the squash from the oven and set it aside, but keep it warm.
Make cream sauce
In a medium sized saucepan set to medium low, add 1 tablespoon of ghee. Add the onion and sauté until soft and just starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Then add the minced shallot and sauté for 1 more minute. Add the shrimp broth to the cooked onion and shallot and cook for about 5 minutes, until slightly reduced. Add cream, chopped rosemary and thyme, and cook for 5 minutes until the mixture is slightly thickened, but do not let it boil or the sauce will break. Add in the parmesan and stir.
Heat a large frying pan over medium heat until hot. Add the shrimp, olive oil, garlic, and kosher salt in the pan and fry quickly until the shrimp just begin to turn pink. This should approximately take 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.
Add the shrimp to the cream sauce. The shrimp will finish cooking in the hot cream. Plate each kabocha half in a bowl. Divide the shrimp and cream sauce evenly amongst the 4 kabocha halves.
*Kabocha facts: Kabocha is a variety of Japanese winter squash. I love its sweet, slightly nutty flavor and silky texture, which resembles a sweet potato but with more structure. Inside its dark green skin, which is completely edible, its flesh is deep orange and a great source of beta carotene. It’s high in fiber, iron, vitamin C and some B vitamins. A cup of kabocha has just 40 calories and 7 grams of carbohydrates which is about half of butternut squash. Read more about kabocha here.