Shrimp Creole: Back to Basics

Without a doubt, the most maltreated recipe to come out of New Orleans cookery is shrimp Creole. The reason for this is that most people simply don’t have an understanding of how the roux functions as a basis for such a complex dish. Much more often than not the roux is simply disregarded as a component altogether, and what you’ll find served as shrimp Creole is little more than a handful of mealy shrimp drenched in a cayenne-infused Italian-style tomato sauce loaded with bell peppers and ladled over a pile of gummy Minute rice. Yes, tomatoes are an essential component to a shrimp Creole, but not a tomato sauce as such. The tomatoes give flavor to a much more complex stew that includes (of course) onions, bell pepper, celery, garlic and liquids. And sure, à la Creole to most people means piquant, but this does not mean hot; spicy, yes, but not hot.

Shrimp Creole is not a difficult dish to make; as with any recipe, you simply have to follow the proper procedure and proceed apace. First make a roux with a quarter cup each of flour and oil—not butter, not olive oil, just a light vegetable oil will do fine—cooking it to a rusty brown; some people will tell you to use a very dark roux for a Creole, but I prefer one a bit lighter (sue me). To this, while still hot, add two cups finely chopped white onion, one cup finely chopped celery and a half cup finely diced bell pepper. Do not over-do the bell pepper! I firmly concur with Justin Wilson who said time and time again that bell pepper is “a taste killah”, and we both agree that you can never use too much onion. Many of  you will recognize this combination as a platform for any number of Creole/Cajun dishes.

For a basic shrimp Creole to feed six people, sauté two pounds peeled shrimp–I recommend a 26-30 count–in a light oil with plenty of garlic, about four cloves crushed and minced, and a little pepper (do not salt). Add the shrimp (with the liquid) to the roux/vegetable mix, then immediately add two 14 ounce cans of diced tomatoes with juice. (In a perfect world, you’d use four cups of home-canned tomatoes, but I do not live in a perfect world, and chances are you don’t, either.) Add a little water to this if needed to give it the consistency of a thick soup, season with a two tablespoons dried basil, two teaspoons thyme and a teaspoon each of oregano and ground cumin. Understand please that these are relative ratios that you can adjust with neither guilt nor effort. As to pepper, some cayenne, yes, and yes to some black pepper, too, but when it comes to pepper, the best rule of thumb is to add just enough to make a statement and provide a good Louisiana hot sauce on the table. Let this stew for at least an hour (I put it in the oven uncovered and stir it two or three times), then adjust your seasonings, particularly the salt and pepper. Serve over cooked long-grain rice; let me recommend Zatarain’s, and no, I’m not getting paid for that.

Oysters Roffignac

Many of you might know the Roffignac cocktail, a fruity drink that the effete among us pretend to enjoy when they’re seriously jonesing for a beer, but for those of us with a realistic bent we have oysters Roffignac, a roguish and astoundingly good dish. This recipe comes by way of Howard Mitcham, who says the Roffignac, once on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets, was the most popular restaurant in antebellum New Orleans, founded by the family of the French nobleman who became the city’s tenth mayor in 1820. Howard claims that oysters Roffignac was the first “baked” oyster dish in New Orleans, and if we can’t believe Howard Mitcham in that regard, then we can’t believe anybody. (Trust me.) You’ll not find many oyster recipes that use red wine, and even fewer using paprika as a principal flavoring, but you’re going to be immeasurably surprised at how wonderful this combination can be. Add this dish to your repertoire as a hearty alternative to a sissy Bienville or Rockefeller.

For four servings:
2 dozen fresh oysters in their shells
1/2 lb. peeled boiled shrimp (about a pound raw in the shell)
A half dozen scallions, finely chopped
About a dozen small button mushrooms, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 stick butter
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon paprika
A dash of cayenne
About a half cup of dry red wine

Clean oysters of mud and hangers-on, shuck and reserve liquid. Heat butter, add scallions, garlic, shrimp, mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are done through. Dissolve cornstarch in about ¼ cup water, add to pan, quickly add wine and oyster liquor as mixture thickens. Top oysters and broil until cooked through. Serve with lemon and parsley.

Creamed Eggs Chartres

I came to know Harry Ward when we worked together at The Warehouse and Audie Michael’s in Oxford during the 1980s, before the town became the characterless hipster charade of condos and concrete that it is now. Though Harry says the folks in Acadia parish would scoff at his claim to be a Cajun, Harry (who is from “N’awlins”) claims it, and I’ll always consider him the first Cajun I ever met. Harry was the first person I ever heard call a spice sack a “sock”, and he also introduced me to Tony Chachere (not literally, of course). Recently Harry sent me this wonderful Brennan’s recipe, and I learned of his ordeal with Katrina as well. While I’m sure there are thousands of such Katrina stories to be told, Harry’s seems particularly poignant to me, perhaps because it left him so far from the home he loves, or perhaps simply because it happened to my friend.

Childhood in Bay St. Louis

When Katrina struck, I was living in Bay St. Louis. Over the years, I had renovated my grandparents’ weekender there. The house was built in 1908. After about 3 years of completely renovating the whole house, I moved in in the late 90’s. As the house was only 600 feet from the Gulf of Mexico, I custom-cut plywood for my windows in preparation for hurricanes over the years. The old house was built up on brick piers about 2 feet off the ground, a typical construction at the time, with a wrap-around porch to take advantage of the sea breeze.

After Camille

As Katrina approached, I knew we would have to evacuate. For the smaller storms, I had just boarded up and rode out the storm. The house had survived Camille, which up until then had been considered “the storm of all storms”, so I knew the house was storm-worthy. My wife and 3-month daughter evacuated to friends near Lafayette, Louisiana as I did not want to go north (to Mississippi or north Louisiana) for fear of Katrina knocking out power as she moved in that direction. After the storm, television coverage of Katrina was mostly of N’awlins as the television crews could not get to the Gulf Coast. We finally saw a fly-over of Bay St. Louis and realized we wouldn’t have anything left. When we made it back to the Coast, we discovered that only the steps remained of my grandparents’ house. The house was 23 feet above sea level. We had a 30 foot storm surge.

Harry at the house after Katrina

We went to Philadelphia, to my wife’s parents’ house, for about 3 weeks. Her brother came to visit there while on business. He was living in Reno, Nevada and suggested that we come out west to Reno as he had a fully-furnished rental. We came in the belief of a temporary stay, but we’ve been here for 10 years. I’m employed with the Nevada Attorney General’s Office. Katrina has been an emotional and financial strain on our family. My wife still has nightmares of water and waves even though we evacuated.

I miss the South, the friendly people that wave to everyone even if they don’t know them, the food, the conversations and the slow pace of life. I miss talking about food or our next meal, even right after finishing one: “What do you want to make with the leftover shrimp or crawfish or crabs?” Like all great Cajun recipes eggs Chartres is about how and what to do with leftovers. Like gumbo; left-over meat or seafood, a roux, and you got your gumbo. Or jambalaya; leftover meat or seafood, mixed w/ rice, and you got your jambalaya. My mom made the eggs Chartres with left-over hard boiled eggs, especially after Easter. Now, this does not mean she would not boil extra eggs at other times, for egg salad, potato salad or even creamed eggs Chartres.

Brennan’s of New Orleans: Creamed Eggs Chartres

1 cup finely chopped/shredded white onions
1/3 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups of milk
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced (reserving 4 center slices for garnishment)
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon of paprika

In a large skillet sauté onion in butter until clear/transparent; stir in flour and cook slowly 3-5 minutes more. Blend in milk and egg yolk until smooth. Add salt and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, 8-10 minutes longer or until sauce thickens. Remove from heat, add sliced eggs and mix lightly. Spoon into 2 8-oz casseroles and sprinkle with paprika and Parmesan cheese mixed together. Bake at 350 degrees until thoroughly headed. Garnish with eggs slices; serves two. This is a wonderful breakfast or brunch recipe, and can be served in a casserole with toasted French bread slices.

Barbecued Shrimp

This old New Orleans dish is not for those faints-of-heart at your table. It confounds everything you think you might know about barbecue or cooking shrimp; you’ll find no simpler recipe for shrimp from the Crescent City and none with more pungency. It has been a signature dish of Pascal’s Manale in New Orleans for decades.

Shrimp, butter and pepper—black pepper; lots of it mind you, and the freshest grind you can get—are the only ingredients. Any additions will ruin it. And unless you happen to have a salamander (lucky you), a very hot oven will do. If you’re fortunate enough to get heads-on shrimp, do it, because tomalley adds flavor, otherwise use shell-on shrimp 16-20 count, nothing smaller. I’m not saying you can’t make this dish with peeled shrimp of a smaller count, but I’d die and go to hell if I did, so I don’t.

For a pound of shrimp, use a stick of butter. Pat shrimp dry and place in the bottom of a shallow baking dish, skillet or casserole. Drizzle with melted butter and top with generous amounts of freshly ground black pepper. Place on the highest rack in a very hot oven for about 10 minutes. Do not let the shell separate. Serve with bread, lemon and plenty of napkins. Light Pilsner and plenty of it is also in order.