Thursday, January 18, 2007

Shrimp Creole

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 Polly and Bill were coming over for dinner.  Sandra's husband was out of town.  We didn't know each other very well then.  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. 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 and would instead poach the shrimp in the sauce until they were just cooked, which would take about 6 minutes. But I once took a cooking class with a master at cooking fish, and he said that the two different methods produce distinct 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, it's really easy, especially if you set up a mise en place, and most of the work can be done ahead, so 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

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

Mise en Place

Bowl 1:
2 bunches scallions, sliced
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons parsley, minced

Bowl 2:
1 tablespoon sliced chives
1/4 teaspoon mace
4 bay leaves
¼ teaspoon dried basil
6 whole allspice
2 whole cloves
2 teaspoons salt (I like fine sea salt)
50 to 75 grinds black pepper, depending on how hot you like your food
½ teaspoon cayenne
¼ teaspoon chili powder

For the pot:
4 teaspoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons red wine
1 8-oz can tomato sauce
1 14.5 ounce can tomatoes
2 cups water
2 pounds large shrimp peeled and deveined

Put 1/2 cup all-purpose flour and 2/3 cup light vegetable oil in a pot.

For this step I use a well-seasoned 10-inch black iron skillet, but that requires transferring to another pot later on, which can be avoided by starting out with a 5- or 6-quart Dutch oven.

Turn the heat on to medium, 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. You might want to start out doing it even more slowly - which means at a lower heat - until you get the hang of it because if the roux burns, meaning you have little black specks in it, you have to throw it out and start over.

Once the roux is made, add the contents of Bowl 1 (scallions, celery, green pepper, onion, garlic, and parsley) to the pan and cook over medium heat for about 4 to 5 minutes.  It won't actually brown, but it will color a little, and you will start to get a very distinctive - and good - smell.

At this point, I carefully transfer the contents of the skillet to a 5-quart Le Creuset Dutch oven. You can do the whole thing in a pot like that (enamel-clad iron) - from start (roux) to finish, and eliminate the transfer, but I have gotten into the habit of making the roux in my black iron skillet.

Whatever you do, make sure the mixture has not cooled down a lot, and add the tomato sauce, tomatoes, red wine, lemon juice and contents of Bowl 2 (chives, bay leaves, and rest of the spices).  Stir to incorporate the mixture, and use a wooden spatula to chop up the tomatoes.

Add 2 cups water, and bring 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 boil before resuming the recipe.

Add the shelled shrimp, and bring back to a boil. Clap a cover on the pot, and immediately reduce the heat. The original recipe calls for simmering it for 20 minutes; however, you can cook it only until the shrimp are just cooked, about 6 minutes. Whichever way you choose to do it, at the end of the cooking time you pick, remove the pot from the heat, and let stand 10 minutes before serving.

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

Print recipe.

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