Thursday, January 18, 2007

Shrimp Creole

Adapted from The New Orleans Cookbook by Rima and Richard Collins

I don't like to go out to dinner on my birthday. When it rolls around, this is what I make - for as many people as I can talk into coming over.

Crabmeat Mandeville is a good starter with this dish, and Baked Banana Splits in Orange Butterscotch Sauce is a good dessert, unless, of course, there's a cake with candles.

One Saturday night when I lived in Alexandria, Virginia, Polly and Bill were coming over for dinner. I worked with a woman named Sandra, who I really liked but didn't (yet) know very well. Her husband was out of town. She had never been to my house and had never met Polly and Bill. As I was leaving work on Friday, I asked Sandra if she wanted to join us, and she said yes. On Monday morning she told everyone at work the story of my serving the Shrimp Creole and her taking only four bites of it before looking up to see that the rest of us HAD FINISHED and were waiting for her!

I never make this without thinking about that night.

What is great about this recipe – in addition to how good it is – is that you can make the sauce a day ahead of time (without putting the shrimp in), and it actually improves in flavor. In fact, it's best if you make the sauce a day ahead, but if you don't have the time to do it, don't let that deter you. It will still be delicious, and any leftovers - if you're lucky enough to have them - will be appreciated. I have been known - more than once - to eat them for breakfast.

Peggy, who is from Charleston (so she should know), never deveins her shrimp by cutting it down the back. Actually, she doesn't bother deveining it at all, and I have adopted this practice and don't devein shrimp either. However, if you absolutely MUST devein shrimp, you can usually just pull the vein out from where the head has been severed (sorry, maybe you didn't think about this). Obviously, this would be the end opposite the tail. Your fingers should work fine, but just in case you have a little trouble getting a grip, keep a pair of tweezers handy.

The original recipe calls for simmering the shrimp in the sauce for 20 minutes, and Peggy would never in a million years let the shrimp simmer for 20 minutes. She would consider it absolute heresy. Instead she would either poach the shrimp in the sauce until they were just cooked, which would take about 6 minutes, or flash cook them in a lightly oiled frying pan and add them to the sauce right before serving. I once took a cooking class with Bruce Beck, a master at cooking fish, and he said that the two different methods produce distinctly different results. The 20-minutes-simmering one flavors the sauce a certain way, and I like it so that's what I do. It is, however, worth trying both ways to see which one you like better.

Don’t be alarmed by the long list of ingredients. In spite of that and the fact that it's time consuming, it's really easy, especially if you set up a mise en place. Because most of the work can be done ahead, it's a good dish for company. However, I do caution you to read the recipe in its entirety before you start to make it for the first time.
Shrimp Creole

Adapted from The New Orleans Cookbook by Rima and Richard Collins

Serves 4, with leftovers (which I like just as much, if not more, than the first time around)

For the Roux:
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2/3 cup vegetable oil (I peanut)

Mise en Place

Bowl 1:
1-3/4 cup thinly sliced scallions
1/3 cup chopped celery (I peel the strings off the back of the stalks with a vegetable peeler)
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped green pepper
4 teaspoons finely minced garlic
3 tablespoons finely minced parsley

Bowl 2:
1 tablespoon minced chives
1/4 teaspoon mace
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
4 whole bay leaves
6 whole allspice
2 whole cloves
2 teaspoons salt (I use Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (original recipe calls for 3/4 teaspoon)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne (original recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon)
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
(FYI, I keep cayenne and chili powder in the refrigerator)

For the pot:
4 teaspoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons red wine
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce (I use Muir Glen)
1 14.5 ounce can whole tomatoes (I use Muir Glen Whole Peeled Tomatoes, not Fire Roasted)
2 cups water
2 pounds large shrimp peeled (I don't devein them, but you can if you like.)


To make the roux, put 1/2 cup all-purpose flour and 2/3 cup vegetable oil in a pot. I use a 5-quart Bourgeat copper pot. You can make the roux in a cast iron skillet, but I don't recommend using cast iron to continue the recipe since the sauce contains tomatoes, which would react with it.

Turn the heat on to medium-low, and cook stirring constantly until the roux you are making turns the color of rich peanut butter. Count on this taking about 20 minutes of continuous stirring with a flat wooden spatula. The first time, you might want to do it even more slowly at a low, rather than medium-low, heat until you get the hang of it because if the roux burns, meaning you have little black specks in it, you need to throw it out and start over.

Once the roux is made, remove the pot from the heat, and add the contents of Bowl 1 (scallions, celery, onion, green pepper, garlic, and parsley). Mix well with the roux, and return the pot to the burner. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring the whole time, until the mixture starts to brown. It will have a very distinct - and good - smell, and if you make this often, you will come to recognize it.

Next, add the tomato sauce and tomatoes. Stir, breaking the whole tomatoes up with your wooden spatula. Then add the red wine, lemon juice, and contents of Bowl 2 (chives, bay leaves, and rest of the herbs and spices). Stir to incorporate the mixture, raise the heat a little, and bring the mixture to a low boil.

Add 2 cups of water, and bring back to a boil. Reduce the heat, and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes. You can cook it ahead to this point - even as long as the day before you plan to serve it, which will actually improve the flavor. If you cook it in advance, bring back to a low boil before resuming the recipe.

Add the shelled shrimp, and bring back to a low boil. Clap a cover on the pot, and immediately reduce the heat a little. The original recipe calls for simmering it for 20 minutes, and this is what I always do, and what I recommend because it infuses the sauce with a delicious, haunting taste of shrimp. However, you can cook it only until the shrimp are just cooked, about 6 minutes. (My friend Peggy, who is from Charleston, would never cook shrimp for 20 minutes). Whichever way you choose to do it - 20 minutes or 6 minutes - at the end of the cooking time you pick, remove the pot from the heat, and let stand, still covered, for 10 minutes before serving.

Serve over a small amount of dry boiled white rice. I use white basmati. It's shrimp served over some rice, not rice with a shrimp sauce on it.

Print recipe.

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