This week’s recipe was cooked under trying circumstances, dear readers. For starters, the day was sweltering. Zelda’s normally lovely flat was invaded by flies too big to be discussed here without shuddering. Her air conditioning struggled to battle the monstrous heat. It was, to be frank, not pretty, and we were all on edge. But we soldiered on, for we had a mission: to cook the delicious, spicy tomato and shrimp stew known as Shrimp Creole. Welcome to All the Fixin’s.
Shrimp creole is a family favorite in Zelda’s house, although the version her mama makes is an improvised simplification. This here is the real deal: slow-cooked sauce with a Holy Trinity base (for those of you not in the know, the Holy Trinity of Cajun cuisine consists of onion, celery, and green bell pepper), three kinds of pepper (plus Tabasco), fresh Creole tomatoes, and, of course, fresh shrimp. Now we, as you know, live in Brooklyn, and fresh tomatoes and shrimps were in short supply. As she often does when preparing for these posts, Zelda embarked on a tour of her local grocers, scouring the shelves and refrigerated cases for the produce of her dreams. Alas, it was not meant to be, and she had to settle for canned (tomatoes) and frozen (shrimp). Now our patron saint of Cajun cooking, M’sieur Paul Prudhomme, is vehemently opposed to frozen seafood. As he writes in the Louisiana Kitchen intro, “All recipes assume fresh, uncooked shrimp. Never use frozen shrimp if you can help it.” But we couldn’t help it, dear readers, although Zelda really did try. So we crossed our fingers and hoped Paul would forgive us (the heat and the vermin led us to believe that he had not, and that in fact he was haunting us as punishment for our icy sins).
Sweat dripping down our brows and flies buzzing about (charming, we know), and ably assisted by friend-of-the-blog Stephanie, we embarked on our culinary quest. Like most Cajun dishes, this required a lot of prep: seemingly endless chopping plus the detailing of the defrosted shrimp, a task that Scout found particularly challenging and frankly kind of icky. The cooking process is similar to our previously conquered jambalaya, with a lot of adding of ingredients, stirring for a few minutes, adding more, stirring again, add and repeat until the flavors have all joined into an exuberant bouquet. It was a long and arduous process, but we had the Dixie Chicks playing and plenty of beer, and after an hour or so we were rewarded with large bowls of spicy, savory stew.
Scout admittedly is neither a shrimp person nor does her body handle spicy cuisine very well, so this was not the ideal dinner for her. But even so, she declared the meal a success, and Zelda and Stephanie gobbled their bowls right up undeterred. As Paul had promised, the sauce had a natural sweetness and incredible flavor, and in the end we declared it a success. Now please, dear Paul’s ghost, could you leave us be now? We have more work to do.
Shrimp Creole (adapted from “Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen”)
3 ½ pounds large shrimp (Paul calls for fresh shrimp, complete with heads and shells and as fatty as possible, so as to maximise flavor and make one’s own shrimp stock. We settled for pre-peeled and deveined frozen, as is the American way. And since Trader Joe’s sells frozen shrimp by the pound, we bumped it up to an even 4.)
2 ½ cups seafood stock (If you are feeling particularly ambitious/unhurried/fearful of spicy Cajun ghosts, you can make your own stock with the heads and shells of your fresh shrimp. Or you can do as we did and just buy the damn thing in a box.)
¼ cup vegetable oil (Paul calls for chicken fat, pork lard, or beef fat here, so if you have access to these, feel free to substitute for a presumably richer flavor)
2 ½ cups finely chopped onions
1 ¾ cups finely chopped celery
1 ½ cups finely chopped green bell pepper (about one pepper)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 cloves)
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons salt
1 ½ teaspoons white pepper
1 teaspoon ground red pepper (a.k.a. cayenne)
¾ teaspoon black pepper
1 ½ teaspoons Tabasco sauce (Original Red, not any of those newfangled varieties)
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 ½ teaspoons dried sweet basil
3 cups finely chopped peeled tomatoes (If you can, you should use Creole tomatoes, as decreed by Paul. Barring that, he suggests using the best vine-ripened tomatoes available in your area. You can also just use canned, which is the route we went: one can diced, and one can petite diced.)
1 ½ cups canned tomato sauce (one instance where Paul does actually recommend the canned route)
2 teaspoons sugar
If you are using fresh shrimp, rinse and peel them, and use the heads and shells to make stock. If you are using frozen, defrost and remove tails/shells if necessary.
In a large saucepan or dutch oven, heat the oil (or fat/lard) over high heat until hot.
Add one cup of the onions and cook over high heat for 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Lower the heat to medium-low and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the onions are a rich brown color (but not burned), approximately 5 minutes.
Add the remaining onions, celery, bell pepper, and butter. Cook over high heat until the pepper and celery are tender (about 5 minutes), stirring occasionally.
Add the garlic, bay leaf, salt, and all three peppers. Stir until well-combined.
Add the Tabasco, thyme, basil, and ½ cup of the stock. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes. In Paul’s words, this is to “allow the seasonings to marry,” and the vegetables to brown further. Stir frequently, and make sure to scrape the bottom of the pan well.
Once you have reached the state of spicy matrimony, your kitchen should be smelling pretty fantastic. But wait, there’s more! Add the tomatoes. Turn the heat down to low and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally and scraping the pan bottom.
Add the tomato sauce, stir to combine, and then simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the remaining 2 cups of stock and the sugar. Continue simmering the sauce for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
At this point, the saucy portion of your labor is done. If you wish, you may now set the sauce aside to cool and refrigerate overnight. [Note: Paul recommends this delay in order for the flavors to really set. When you’re ready to add the shrimp to the mix, simply skim the oil off the surface and reheat the sauce to a boil. Then turn the heat down to very low, add the shrimp, cover the pot, and cook until the shrimp turn pink —about 5 minutes.]
If, however, you wish to enjoy your Creole feast right away (Zelda and Scout, party of two!), you may now turn the heat off. Add the shrimp, cover the pot, and let it sit until the shrimp are plump and pink. This should take about 5 to 10 minutes. It is also a great time to cook your white rice, enough to serve all your dinner guests.
If you are fancy, like Paul, you will preheat your plates in the oven at 250 degrees. Then you will serve ½ cup mounded white rice with 1 cup of sauce spooned around it and 8 or 9 shrimp arranged on top. If you are a heathen, simply slop a pile of rice in a bowl and ladle as much spicy, tomato-y, shrimpy goodness on there as you like. It tastes delicious either way.