Shrimp Creole: Back to Basics

What you’ll usually find served as shrimp Creole is a handful of mealy shrimp drenched in a cayenne-infused tomato gravy loaded with bell peppers and ladled over a gummy pile of Minute rice.

This commercial abomination has become so prevalent that many people have begun to replicate this horror in the home kitchen, but if you follow procedure and proceed apace, a good shrimp Creole is not at all difficult to make.

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. People from the boonies use a very dark roux for a Creole, but I prefer one two shades lighter than a Budweiser bottle.

They can talk about me if they want to.

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. (Within reason.)

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 I’ll bet 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. 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 a low 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.

New Orleans Barbecued Shrimp

This recipe comes from Howard Mitcham’s knowledgeable, rambunctious, and absolutely delightful Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz  (Addison-Wesley: 1978). Howard lived in New Orleans in what many consider a golden era, (1955-70) when the city was filled with talent not only local, but brought on board by the scintillating lures of freedom and indulgence.

One of the most delicious seafood dishes to come out of New Orleans is barbecued shrimp, and once you’ve eaten it, you’ll never forget it. Barbecued shrimp have been around for a long, long time, and they’ve been served at many restaurants, but they’ve been brought to a peak of perfection by Pascal’s Manale, up- town on Napoleon Avenue. People come from miles around to eat their barbecued shrimp, and on weekend nights the place is so crowded, you have to wait two or three hours to get a table.

It is said that Manale’s secret recipe for this dish is buried in the center of a two-ton concrete block under the office safe. A friend of mine, Mrs. Ivy Whitty, solved the riddle by hiring a cook who used to work at Manale’s. The cook could neither read nor write, but she had all the treasured secrets in her head. Working together, that cook and Mrs. Whitty perfected a barbecued shrimp recipe that may or may not be Manale’s, but it is sublime.

It’s amazing that such a good dish could be so simple, but there’s nothing in it except shrimp, butter, and black pepper. If you try to add anything else-herbs, spices, Worcestershire, whatever-you’ll spoil it for certain. It’s important to use fresh shrimp with their heads and shells on if you can find them. The tomalley inside the shrimp’s head, which is like the tomalley of a lobster, adds a real punch to the sauce in the pan. (However, if you can’t find fresh shrimp, frozen unpeeled shrimp with tails will make a dish that’s almost as delicious and better than almost any shrimp dish you could find in the average seafood restaurant.)

At first glance it seems that the recipe calls for too much black pepper, but you’ll discover later that it’s just right. The heat cooks out of it-well, sort of. Always open a fresh can of black pepper when making this dish so that it will be fully aromatic and pungent. The general rule for butter is one stick per pound of shrimp plus a stick for the pan.

Use a 16-20 count; pat shrimp dry and place in the bottom of a buttered baking dish, skillet or casserole. Drizzle with melted butter—one stick to one pound of shrimp—and top with excessive amounts of freshly ground black pepper. Place on the highest rack in your hottest oven for about 10 minutes (jly).

Shrimp and Grits

In 1985, Craig Claiborne visited Bill Neal’s restaurant, Crook’s Corner, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and after sampling many dishes, asked Neal to prepare shrimp and grits for him in his kitchen the next morning. Claiborne published this recipe in the New York Times, and the national craze for shrimp and grits was on. While the recipe has been replicated—usually with disappointing results—in restaurants across the country, this is the original recipe.

6 cups cooked grits with cheese (I use a white cheddar)
Tabasco sauce
Freshly grated nutmeg
White pepper
1 pound (454 g) fresh shrimp
6 slices bacon
Peanut oil
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup finely sliced scallions
1 large garlic clove, peeled
4 teaspoons lemon juice
Tabasco sauce
2 tablespoons fresh, chopped parsley
Salt and pepper

Season grits to taste, but lightly, with Tabasco, a very little nutmeg, and white pepper. Hold in a warm place or in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Peel the shrimp, rinse, and pat dry. Dice the bacon and sauté lightly in the skillet. The edges of the bacon should brown, but the bacon should not become crisp. Add enough peanut oil to the bacon fat in the skillet to make a layer of fat about a quarter of an inch deep. When quite hot, add the shrimp in an even layer. Turn the shrimp as they start to color, add the mushrooms, and sauté about 4 minutes. Turn occasionally and add the scallions. Add the garlic through a press and stir around. Then season with lemon juice, a dash or two of Tabasco, and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste. Divide the grits among four plates. Spoon the shrimp over and serve immediately.

Dilled Shrimp

Shrimp usually come to my table well-peppered, but in the soupy heat of a Mississippi summer, a cooler alternative is refreshing. In Scandinavia, where fish and shellfish of all types are staves of life, shrimp is often seasoned with dill, usually in combination with horseradish. In Sweden, shrimp is boiled in a bouillon of water, vinegar, beer and sugar before saucing, but boiling in lightly salted water with lemons and bay leaves works just as well if—as I do—you really don’t feel like wasting a beer. Devein if you’re the squeamish sort, then toss with a sauce of one part mayonnaise to one part sour cream (or cream fraiche, if you happen to have some on hand…) with plenty of dill, a hint of horseradish and salt to taste. A few minced capers are nice, and you can throw in a little white pepper for a bit of bite. Serve over leaf greens with onion, toasted rye, boiled eggs (preferably pickled) and thinly–sliced garden-fresh cucumber (not those bloated watery things you find in the grocery store). Lemon wedges are a required garnish, but limes are prettier.

Shrimp Eggplant Curry

Once as a very young man, I walked into a health food store that was run by one of those formidable New Age types whose moral superiority in the realm of nutrition–which she considered an extension of her deep-seated beliefs in The Great Mother and Her Bosom of Beneficence–was further exaggerated by just being an asshole herself. When I asked her where she kept the curry, she literally sniffed, tilted her nose towards the tie-dyed bed sheets covering the ceiling and said, “I’m sure you mean to make your own. If you’ll give me your recipe, I’ll show you where you can find the ingredients.”

So I fumbled in my pockets and mumbled something about leaving the recipe my friend Rupta had given me at home before beating a retreat and hitting the books only to discover that curry is indeed not a singular spice or seasoning, but a combination of any given number of ingredients with endless variations. Still, that experience cooled my already tenuous relationship with curries, and though I have read Madhur Jaffre’s pontificates on the subject, I’ve never reached the degree of sophistication peers have by actually making my own blend. Granted, curry isn’t a spice mixture I use very often, either, but I really do love a pungent curried roast chicken, particularly cold with sour cream. Like most people, I find curry most useful for vegetables, particularly cauliflower and eggplant.

Peel and halve (or cut into thick slices, depending on the size) six small or two large eggplants, brush liberally with oil (I don’t recommend olive oil for this recipe, nor ghee or what passes for it in your world; if you’re picky about it–and God help you if you are–use peanut oil), dust with pepper and place in a very hot oven until browned and soft. For this recipe you’ll need about three cups of cooked eggplant.

Saute about two pounds 26-30 count shrimp with a chopped a small onion and 2 small mild peppers. Don’t use a bell if you can help it; even a poblano is better. Saute with  two cloves of garlic until shrimp are cooked, then add eggplant. Season with a quarter cup of your favorite curry. Blend with a cup to two of weak stock to the consistency of a thick gumbo . Bake in a medium (350) oven until reduced by half. Seasoned rice is a great side.