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Recipes and Stories

3 July 2012: Shrimp Creole

Traditional Shrimp Creole

Without a doubt, Shrimp Creole is one of the most neglected classics in the entire repertory of modern Southern cooking. Though a version of it can be found in almost every comprehensive anthology, and it still turns up on the menu of many Louisiana restaurants, it no longer has the respect that it deserves, and is treated as a hackneyed cliché, indeed, almost as an anachronism.

That’s partly because, during the nation’s love affair with Louisiana cookery in the latter part of the twentieth century, when Creole and Cajun cooking—two completely different cuisines—got hopelessly entangled with one another, Shrimp Creole became more popular than was good for it, and, far too often, was so badly done (and overdone) that serious cooks and so-called gourmets (who quite frankly have lost their sense of subtlety) began to turn up their noses at it.

It’s a shame, really, because a proper Shrimp Creole is one of our greatest dishes. It has a special place in my own heart because it was the first “fancy” thing I learned to make, and still ranks as one of the best and loveliest things to come from my kitchen in the summer.

Yes, in summer: that's the only time I make it, because that’s when all the ingredients—fat, sweet creek shrimp, garden-ripened tomatoes, and sweet bell peppers—are seasonal. While a passable Creole sauce can be made off-season with canned tomatoes, it really shines when made with freshly harvested tomatoes and sweet peppers. And while out-of-season, frozen or farmed shrimp will be improved by a good sauce, and may satisfy a certain nostalgia, they’re never going to make your palate dance and that’s all there is to it.

We think of Shrimp Creole as a New Orleans dish, and the various versions found throughout the South probably did emanate from there, but actually shrimp simmered in tomato-based Creole Sauce (also known in the Spanish Diaspora as Salsa Criolla) can be found throughout the Gulf and Caribbean, and probably predate the Louisiana version.

The recipe that follows is the one I’ve made since I was a preteen. It’s an old, traditional version, without a roux. Some modern renditions include a roux, but of the half dozen or so historical recipes in my collection, only two call for it—The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book (1901) and Mary Moore Bremer’s New Orleans Recipes (1932)—and both showed great restraint in the amount used. With all due respect to both sources, tomato based sauces don’t need a roux—not even a little. In fact, the whole point of a good Creole Sauce, whether it hails from Cuba, Mexico, or Louisiana, is subtlety, and face it: there’s nothing subtle about the dark roux that has become so ubiquitously stirred into today’s Creole-Cajun (con)fusion cookery. It just doesn’t belong here.

My Old Fashioned Shrimp Creole
Serves 4 to 6

5-6 ripe tomatoes
2 tablespoons bacon drippings or unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and diced small
3 large ribs celery, strung and diced small
1 green bell pepper, stem, core, seeds and membrane removed, diced small
2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed and minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh or 2 teaspoons crumbled dried thyme
1 large bay leaf
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Ground cayenne
Worcestershire sauce
2 pounds (headless weight) large shrimp, peeled
4 to 6 cups cooked rice
1 cup green onions, thinly sliced

1. Cut an ‘x’ in the bottoms of the tomatoes and blanch them in boiling water 1 minute. Drain, core, and peel. Seed them over a sieve set in a large bowl, then chop and add them to their collected juices. You’ll need 4 cups.

2. Warm the drippings or butter in a 4 quart enameled iron Dutch oven over medium heat until just melted. Add the onion, celery, and pepper to the pan and sauté, tossing, until the onion and celery are translucent and beginning to color. Add the garlic and thyme, and sauté until fragrant, about half a minute.

3. Add the bay leaf, tomatoes with their juices, and the tomato paste. Season well with salt and pepper, cayenne, and a dash or so of Worcestershire sauce, stir, and bring it to a simmer. Reduce the heat to maintain a slow, steady simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very tender and the liquid is somewhat reduced and thickened, about an hour.

[The sauce can be made up to 2 days ahead to this point. If making more than four hours ahead, cool, transfer to a lidded storage container, cover tightly, and refrigerate until needed. Gently reheat over medium-low heat.]

4. Add the shrimp and simmer until they are just curled and pink. Taste and adjust the seasonings and let it warm for half a minute or so to let them meld. Serve over rice, topped with green onions.

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