I was introduced to Creole cooking on my first visit to New Orleans many years ago. I ate barbecue shrimp, jambalaya, gumbo and shrimp étouffée. The only dish with which I was vaguely familiar was jambalaya, and that was because of the Hank Williams hit song, “On the Bayou.” The food was so good that I bought a cookbook of Creole cuisine, La Bouche Creole, by Leon E. Soniat, Jr.
The title literally means “The Creole Mouth.” It’s a fun book to read filled with Soniat’s accounts of how Mamere (his grandmother) and Mamete (his mother) prepared many of the recipes. La Bouche Creole has been in print for over thirty years. You should get a copy if you want to enjoy authentic Creole cuisine. Meanwhile, here is a modified version of one of my favorite recipes from Soniat’s collection, shrimp étouffée.
Étouffée means “smothered” so shrimp étouffée is shrimp smothered in a thick sauce. It resembles shrimp creole like my mother used to make, but shrimp étouffée has a more complex flavor that I think you will find both intriguing and delicious. The secret is the beef broth and brown roux. It takes longer to make shrimp étouffée than shrimp creole, but that roux creates a rich sauce that is heavenly.
Soniat calls for three pounds of shrimp, and that is what I used the first time I made the dish. Shrimp are expensive, however, and I now use about two pounds, half medium and half large.
3 T butter
3 T vegetable oil
6 T all-purpose flour
2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
1 cup chopped celery
4 or 5 cloves garlic
1 6 oz can tomato paste
3 cups beef broth
2 cups water
3 bay leaves
1 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. chili powder
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. salt
2- 3 lbs. peeled shrimp
1 cup chopped shallots
2 T chopped parsley
First make a roux. Heat three tablespoons each of butter and vegetable oil over low heat in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add six tablespoons flour and use a wooden spoon to stir it frequently until the flour is medium brown, about the color of milk chocolate. It will take about twenty minutes to do this right.
Pay close attention to the flour so it does not burn. Prepare the vegetables while the roux is cooking. Clean and chop the onion, bell pepper and celery into a quarter to half-inch dice. Clean and mince the garlic.
When the roux is brown, add the vegetables followed by the tomato paste, beef broth and water. Raise the heat and bring the pot to a boil, then reduce the heat. While the vegetables simmer, add the bay leaves and stir in the basil, thyme, chili powder, cayenne pepper, black pepper and salt. Clean and chop the shallots into a quarter-inch dice and finely chop the parsley.
Peel and devein the shrimp if necessary, or thaw frozen cooked shrimp and remove the tails.
After the vegetables have simmered about forty-five minutes, add the shallots and parsley. Simmer for another ten minutes, then add the shrimp and bring the pot back to a simmer. If you are using raw shrimp, allow the pot to simmer about seven or eight minutes, then turn off the heat. With precooked shrimp, turn the heat off as soon as the pot begins to simmer.
Cover the pot and let it stand on the back of the stove for an hour or so to blend the flavors. Reheat just to a simmer before serving.
Serve the étouffée over white rice with a green salad and crusty bread.
NOTES: Soniat calls for raw shrimp, which you need to peel before cooking. Not having any raw shrimp in the house one Sunday morning, I tried two packages of frozen cooked shrimp. I thawed them, removed the tails, and added them to the pot as the final ingredient. The dish was still delicious, so you can get by with cooked shrimp.
One cup of uncooked rice will produce about three cups of cooked rice, so if you start with one and one-half cups of uncooked rice, you will end up with six to eight servings to smother with shrimp étouffée.