Thursday, February 2, 2012

New Orleans & Shrimp Etouffee

This past November, Aaron had an improv show in New Orleans, so I tagged along as the team's groupie. We've both been dying to go to the Big Easy for years, so this was our chance! Also, my childhood friend Molly and her fiance Flynn both live there and graciously put us up. 

We both fell in love with the city: its architecture, cuisine, people and music. It was everything we'd hoped for and more. Our primary navigating tool was food. It became quite a challenge to hit all the places we wanted to eat in the span of a day. We would find ourselves eating lunch still stuffed from breakfast, then contemplating dessert after a full dinner. I felt like our trip was a crash course training exercise to stretch our stomachs as much as possible and prepare us for a professional eating competition! Some of our gluttonous standout dishes were: fried alligator and hushpuppies at Cochon, turtle soup at The Commander's Palace, bread pudding at Mother's, and benyas at Cafe du Monde, just to name a few.

While staying at Molly and Flynn's, I noticed a cookbook on their bookshelf entitled, Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen. The book cover instantly filled me with joy. I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but look at it!  Even if I didn't know anything about Paul Prudhomme, I could safely say this guy was the real deal. I found myself flipping through it during our stay. When I got back to New York, I researched the top ten Louisiana cookbooks and his came up every time. Published in 1984, its been a classic ever since. After "subtle" hints from me all of December, Aaron found it in his heart to surprise me on Christmas morning with Paul's delightful book. Lets just say it's a gift to both of us, as each of us will equally benefit from its pages. 

This is my first attempt at cooking Cajun and Creole cuisine. I often found the two to be confusing, but I like Paul Prudhomme's thorough definition, explaining that, "Cajun and Creole cuisines share many similarities. Both are Louisiana born, with French roots. But Cajun is very old, French country cooking- a simple, hearty fare. Cajun food began in Southern France, moved on to Nova Scotia and then came to Louisiana. The Acadians adapted their dishes to use ingredients that grew wild in the area- bay leaves from the laurel tree, file powder from the sassafras tree and an abundance of different peppers such as cayenne, Tabasco peppers, banana peppers and bird's eye peppers that grow wild in Southern Louisiana- learning their uses from the native Indians. The evolution of Creole cooking, just like Cajun, has depended heavily on whatever foods have been available. But Creole food, unlike Cajun, began in New Orleans and is a mixture of traditions of French, Spanish, Italian, American Indian, African and other ethnic groups. Creole cooking is more sophisticated and complex than Cajun cooking- it's city cooking." I know that's a hefty excerpt, but I find it to be a wonderful explanation and distinction between the two styles of cooking. 

With all that being said, there's no better way to learn about this food than by cooking it and eating it! I sort of just opened the book and my eyes fell upon Paul's recipe for Shrimp Etouffee, so that's where I began. 

I have little experience cooking dark roux's so I was curious to see how mine would turn out. The original recipe calls for a dark red-brown roux, so I referenced Chef Prudhomme's wonderful roux resource page to help me get there. While my roux turned out to be a beautiful red-brown as depicted in his book, it quickly became too hot and I lost control of it. The roux began to inch its way towards a very dark brown roux as I stirred in my vegetables and spices, thus resulting in a darker sauce instead of the creamy red-brown color etouffee is known for. I should have listened to the voice in my head and tossed the roux and started over, but I was hungry and impatient. Since my roux became too dark, my etouffee was a bit thin (the longer you cook a roux, the less it will thicken- since the high heat breaks down the starch in the flour). Nevertheless, a good first attempt at this dish and making a darker roux.

Since my first go at this dish, I've tried making roux different ways, so I'll share what I've learned from my trials and errors in an upcoming post. My second attempt at this dish is the one you see pictured before you. I took what I learned from my experimentation and successfully applied it the second time around. While eating, fond memories of New Orleans came flooding back, so I must have done something right.  

Adapted from Paul Prudhomme, Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen


For the seafood stock:
2 quarts cold water
1 medium onion, quartered
2 large cloves garlic, unpeeled and smashed
1 rib celery 
1 medium sized carrot, unpeeled and cut in half or quartered
Shrimp heads, shells, and tails (in addition, you could also add a couple of rinsed fish carcasses- heads and gills removed and/or oyster liquor).

Peel and de-vein the 2 lb. of shrimp (or crawfish) called for in the etouffee recipe and reserve heads, shells, and tails for stock. Discard veins. Cover all of the stock ingredients with the 2 quarts of water in a 4 quart sauce pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, then gently simmer uncovered for 1 hour. Replenish the stock with water as necessary, to insure that you'll end up with about 1 1/2 quarts. Strain stock through a fine mesh strainer and discard the shells and vegetables. Set aside until ready to use or refrigerate overnight. Freeze any leftover stock for another use.  

Yield: About 1 1/2 quarts

For the rice:
2 cups uncooked rice (preferable converted, such as Uncle Ben's)
2 1/2 cups seafood stock
2 tbsp. yellow onion, minced
2 tbsp. celery, minced
2 tbsp. green bell pepper, minced
1 1/2 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1/2 tsp. salt, or more to taste
1/8 tsp. garlic powder
A pinch each of white pepper, cayenne pepper, and black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a 5x9x2 1/2- inch loaf pan, combine all the ingredients; mix well. Seal pan snugly with aluminum foil. Bake for 1 hour, 10 minutes. Serve immediately or keep covered and it will stay warm for up to 2 hours. 

Yield: about 6 cups

  • This is a basic rice recipe. You could certainly spice it up a bit, but its mellow flavor goes nicely with the flavorful sauce.
  • If making in advance, use a double boiler to reheat the rice, or warm it in a skillet with unsalted butter.
  • Also, if making in advance, omit the bell peppers- they tend to sour quickly. 
For the etouffee:

Seasoning mix:
2 tsp. salt
1/2 to 1 tsp. cayenne pepper (use only 1/2 tsp. or less if you're sensitive to heat)
1 tsp. white pepper
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. dried basil leaves
1 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1/4 cup onions, chopped
1/4 cup celery, chopped
1/4 cup green bell peppers, chopped
3.5 oz. (by weight) vegetable oil (about 1/2 cup)
3.5 oz. (by weight) all-purpose flour (about 3/4 cup)
3 cups seafood stock
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 lb. medium shrimp (or crawfish)
3/4 cup green onions, chopped
4 cups cooked rice (see above recipe)

Combine the seasoning mix ingredients in a small bowl, mix well and set aside. In another bowl combine the chopped onions, celery, bell peppers (a.k.a. the "Cajun Trinity"). 

Begin making your roux (for more information on making roux, see here): in a large cast iron skillet (or other heavy skillet), heat the oil over high heat until it begins to smoke, about 4 to 5 minutes. Using a long-handled metal whisk, gradually mix in the flour (adding in thirds), stirring until completely smooth. Reduce heat and continue cooking, whisking constantly, until roux just becomes a medium red-brown color, about 5 to 10 minutes- remember the roux will continue cooking a bit even after you've removed it from the heat (be careful not to let it burn or splash on your skin). Remove from heat and immediately stir in the vegetables followed by 1 tbsp. of the seasoning mix with a wooden spoon. Continue stirring until the mixture has cooled, about 5 minutes. 

In a 2-quart saucepan, bring 2 cups of the stock to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer. Gradually add the cooled roux and whisk until thoroughly combined. Heat the mixture over low heat and cook until flour taste is gone, about 2 minutes, whisking almost constantly. The mixture will become quite thick. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a 4-quart saucepan melt 1 stick of the butter over medium heat. Stir in the shrimp and green onions and saute about 1 minute, stirring almost constantly. Add the remaining stick of butter, the stock mixture, add the stock starting with a 1/2 cup and gradually adding more if necessary, until you've reached the desired consistency. Constantly shake the pan in a back and forth motion or stir the mixture until well combined. Stir in the remaining seasoning mix and remove from heat (if sauce begins to separate, add about 2 tbsp. more of stock or water and shake pan until it combines). Drain off any excess oil and serve immediately. 

To serve, using a small bowl or teacup as a mold, place the rice in the center of each plate. Surround the rice with the etouffee. 

Yield: about 4 servings

  • Making the seafood stock and rice a day in advance makes this dish less labor intensive and saves you a lot of time on the day you plan to serve it.

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