Mexican Shrimp Cocktail with Saffron

A funny thing happens when you marry a pata salada (Spanish for salty foot—the endearing nickname given to people who are raised on the beaches of Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco): You become a mariscos snob.Since meeting my wife Paola, my seafood consumption has spiked to near-ridiculous levels. Fortunately, I've been able to keep up with her Neptune-like appetite for anything from the sea. As a result, I can tell you if a shrimp cocktail is made properly or not. Meaning, if the broth is made from scratch with shrimp shells and aromatics versus just throwing a bunch of tomato cocktail mix, ketchup, and hot sauces together in a bowl.Coctél de camarón (you may know it as Mexican shrimp cocktail) has a special place in our life. It has become our welcome meal as soon as we land in Puerto Vallarta, usually famished. We arrive at Paola's family's home where a bowl of her mother's replenishing coctél awaits. It always starts off our trip to paradise on the right foot.One day back home in Los Angeles, I called my mother-in-law and asked her to coach me through her coctél process to surprise Paola. (She was mad at me that day, and I needed all the help I could get to get out of the doghouse!) The idea was to surprise her with one of our favorite dishes that we associate with so many great memories. While the shrimp shells were simmering away to make the broth, I spotted our Spanish saffron container out of the corner of my eye and figured, what the hell? I grabbed a fat pinch of the stuff and added it to the broth.As the broth chilled to room temperature—the way to properly eat a Mexican coctél de camarón, so you can taste all of the delicate flavors and fresh shrimp—I took a sip, and my eyes grew big. It was so good. Her mother's coctél is perfect as-is, but with a pinch of Spanish saffron, it became a revelatory experience. It did the trick and we forgot what we argued about after a couple of big spoonfuls.In this recipe, Paola amplifies the flavor even more by charring the vegetables a bit before using them to build an umami-filled stock. Combined with the saucy shrimp and all the cucumber, tomato, onion, cilantro, and avocado, this dish is suitable for a complete lunch. Eat it with some good tostadas or saltine crackers to complete the Puerto Vallarta experience.

Mexican Shrimp Cocktail with Saffron
Photo: Jen Causey
Active Time:
1 hrs
Total Time:
1 hrs 50 mins
4 to 6



  • 1 red bell pepper, quartered

  • 1 large red tomato

  • 1/2 yellow onion, quartered

  • 3 unpeeled garlic cloves

  • 2 pounds unpeeled raw jumbo shrimp

  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided

  • 2 quarts tap water

  • 1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped

  • 3 bay leaves

  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads

  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper


  • 3/4 cup ketchup

  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice (from 2 limes)

  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

  • 2 teaspoons Mexican-style hot sauce (such as Valentina or Salsa Huichol)

  • 2 teaspoons adobo sauce (from can of chipotle chiles in adobo)

  • 1 cup finely chopped red onion

  • 1 cup 1/4-inch-cubed tomato

  • 1 cup 1/4-inch-cubed seeded cucumber

  • 1 serrano chile, seeded and finely chopped (about 2 teaspoons) (optional)

  • 1 medium-size ripe avocado, chopped (about 3/4 cup)

  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

  • Saltine crackers, for serving


  1. Make the shrimp and shrimp stock: Heat a large cast-iron skillet over high. Add bell pepper, tomato, onion, and garlic; cook, turning occasionally, until vegetables are charred in spots and slightly softened, about 15 minutes.

  2. Meanwhile, peel and devein shrimp, leaving tails on; reserve shells. In a large bowl, toss together peeled shrimp and 1 teaspoon salt. Cover and chill until ready to use.

  3. In a large saucepan, bring 2 quarts water, charred vegetable mixture, celery, and bay leaves to a boil over medium-high. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, lightly mashing stock with a slotted spoon, until stock is light red, about 30 minutes. Pour through a fine wire-mesh strainer into a bowl; discard solids. Wipe saucepan clean, and return strained shrimp stock to saucepan. Add saffron, black pepper, and remaining 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a simmer over medium-high. Reduce heat to medium, and gently simmer until saffron has bloomed and the stock is rich red, about 10 minutes. Add shrimp; cook, stirring occasionally, until just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes.

  4. Using a slotted spoon, transfer shrimp to a colander; rinse under cold running water to stop the cooking process. Drain well. Pour stock through a fine wire-mesh strainer into a large measuring cup; discard solids. Set shrimp aside.

  5. Make the cocktail sauce: In a medium bowl, stir together ketchup, lime juice, Worcestershire, hot sauce, and adobo sauce until smooth. Add onion, tomato, cucumber, serrano, and shrimp; stir to coat. (The sauce should be tart, spicy, and assertive; the flavors will mellow out once you add it to the stock.)

  6. Ladle 3/4 cup shrimp stock into 4 to 6 large coupe or shrimp cocktail glasses; reserve remaining stock for another use. Add about 1 cup shrimp mixture to each cocktail glass; top with avocado and cilantro. Serve with saltines.

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