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Ricky Moore, the James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham, North Carolina, loves a good seafood boil. The experience – the cooking of shrimp, sausage, corn, red potatoes and savory spices in an enormous pot before it’s dumped onto a newspaper-lined picnic table – means just one thing: an occasion. “It’s always been a celebratory thing,” he says. “It’s 4th of July, after church on Sunday, graduation, a marriage. It’s a feast.”
The low-country boil, as it’s often referenced, hails from South Carolina, Moore says. But the boil is, in fact, regional, and its components entirely depend on where you’re from and what’s available. “It could be crab, it could be clams, it could be what’s growing in the garden,” he says. “And everyone has their own secret seasoning.” What’s constant is that a boil is accessible and not complicated: You cook it all in a huge pot, drain it into a delicious pile and then get your hands dirty peeling shrimp, squeezing lemon, dashing on hot sauce and swiping into butter and dips.
As free flowing as it sounds, there is a method. The key to any boil, emphasizes Moore, is balance. “It’s understanding the ratio of corn to potato to sausage to shrimp. I’m going to be a bit offended if the majority of my plate is sausage. For me, shrimp is a priority and everything else is the supporting cast. It’s a seafood dish first.”
Moore underscores this in his 2019 book Saltbox Seafood Joint Cookbook. “It’s not a big book, but it’s intense,” he laughs. “It’s like taking a sauce and reducing it down. You intensify it. The book is a reduction of information on southeastern seafood and things I grew up with. A lot of those dishes and that terroir don’t get recognition – it gets jumped over.”
Moore’s last bit of advice: “Season the water aggressively; season the bejesus out of it. That’s where you’re getting your flavor from.”
Salt of the sea
A champion for North Carolina’s seafood culture, Moore spent most of his formative years in New Berm, North Carolina. The city sits at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers, and Moore grew up exploring and catching all the fish he could. He enlisted in the army, learned the discipline of being a soldier and saw the world, but never did he forget the waters that taught him the beauty of fresh fish. He returned stateside and attended the Culinary Institute of America.
When Moore opened Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham in 2012, he pledged to highlight the rich tradition of the Carolina coast and its fish shacks and camps. He published his book Saltbox Seafood Joint Cookbook to further that message. And it’s catching on: Moore was nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast in 2020 and again in March 2022. He was announced as a winner in June.
How to make your own DIY seafood seasoning
Moore says every family has a secret recipe. Here’s a starting point for yours:
- Toss together mustard seeds, coriander seeds, whole allspice, dill seeds and black peppercorns with a smaller amount of whole cloves and red pepper flakes. Eye the amounts – you’re aiming for about ¾ cup of seasoning.
- Place in cheesecloth, pull up the corners and tie tightly with kitchen twine. Lightly crush the contents before adding to the pot.
“Shore Country” Boil
- Bring a very large (5- to 6-gallon) stock pot of water to a boil over an outdoor cooker, or on medium-high heat indoors. Add seafood spice, bay leaves, beer, vinegar, Worcestershire and hot sauce and bring to a boil. Add potatoes and sausage; cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Add corn; cook for 5 minutes. When everything is almost done, add shrimp and cook for 4 minutes. Add parsley and stir once to incorporate.
- Drain off the water and pour the contents out onto a picnic table covered with newspaper. Place a bowl of lemon wedges and a bowl of shrimp dip on the table. Grab a paper plate, multiple napkins, a beer and enjoy!
Make the Shrimp Dip:
- Combine all ingredients into a bowl, stir and serve.