Did I ever tell you about my Aunt Esther and Uncle Dave?
As soon as she’d greeted my father, she’d turn to my mother (in front of my sister and me) and say, “How’s them kids? Still ugly?” And then turn to us with a wink.
We visited them the summer before I turned 13, and that was one of the biggest culinary turning points in my upbringing. I remember being woken up, jet-lagged beyond reason, to go get beignets before the sun would steam the wrinkles out of my suitcase-withered shirt. I remember finding it irrational, even impossible, that there was a sax player busking for change at that hour.
I remember the muffaletta and the po’ boy; going to Antoine’s and being fed elephant garlic and chicken while wearing a “borrowed” blazer (which is another story for another time); the first taste of crawfish fat; and that Tabasco was more of a lifestyle than a condiment. I remember being impressed that you could take things so seriously while being so casual about it. The world seemed a little sideways in New Orleans, and I’ve lived enough up and down since to know that sideways is preferable when you can have it.
The next time Uncle Dave and Aunt Esther came up north to visit, I shook Uncle Dave’s hand before anyone had a word out, and asked, “How’s that wife? Still old?”
J’etouffee les ecrevisse.
“Casually serious” is a good motto for making Louisiana food in general, whether it’s Cajun, Creole, or otherwise. Etouffee itself is one of those dishes that’s got iterations in every culture in Louisiana. Impressive, for a recipe that’s only been around since the 1920s.
Herbert called it crawfish court-bouillon; it supposedly got its current name from her friend Anna Guidry Champagne, who owned a restaurant and dance hall. A curious customer stuck his head in the kitchen and asked what she was doing, and Champagne replied, “J’etouffee les ecrevisse,” which translates to, “I’m smothering the crawfish.”
It works because all of those flavors, from the brine of the shrimp to the garlic and cayenne, are held together by the nutty warmth of the roux, in a texture just slightly creamier than melted butter.
So, let’s talk about some of the decisions I made in this recipe. A lot of recipes will start out with a butter-based roux. While you can technically do that for this dish, because the roux is only cooked to blonde (which is darker than blonde–see the pictures below), the traditional way to make roux in Louisiana is with vegetable oil. The milk solids in butter will burn if you cook the roux any darker than blonde. I add butter at the end for taste.
Speaking of fussy and French, I clean the top and bottom vein from shrimp, and cut through the tail to remove where they connect. Especially these shrimp, which were wild-caught in the gulf. I don’t want to hear otherwise. It’s gross, and I’m not serving shrimp chitterlings to anyone. Ever.
A tip about roux: stir it constantly as it cooks. You won’t know what color the bottom is if you’re only seeing the foam on top. Also, when adding the vegetables, add the onion first and stir; you want to cool the roux down right away, and the onion will handle the heat better than the celery or the green pepper. As soon as the temperature comes down, add the others.
So there’s the agony of etouffee. Let’s talk a bit about the ecstasy.
Etouffee is an example of how something can be spicy without being hot like a pepper. When you take a bite, there are so many flavors competing for your attention, and you taste them all at once, in no particular order, and it works. It works because all of those flavors, from the brine of the shrimp to the garlic and cayenne, are held together by the nutty warmth of the roux, in a texture just slightly creamier than melted butter.
It’s comfort food. Perhaps too comforting, given the slightly massive plate I made for myself (this recipe serves two, and that was about a portion and a half). I’d like to think Aunt Esther would approve, even if she’s likely watching from above and asking, “How’s you? Still eating for two?”
From Yesterdish’s recipe box.
Yesterdish’s Shrimp Etouffee
1 lb. gulf shrimp, cleaned
1 qt. shrimp stock
small dice of:
- 1/2 c. onion
- 1/3 c. green pepper
- 1/3 c. celery
5 cloves garlic, sliced
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
1 tsp. dry thyme
2 Tbsp. oil
2 Tbsp. flour
1 tsp. cayenne
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. ground white pepper
5 sliced green onions
1/2 c. tomato sauce
1 Tbsp. butter
Tony Chachere’s, to taste
White rice, for serving
- Over medium-low heat, stir oil and flour together to make roux. Cook, stirring, till peanut butter color, about 10-12 minutes.
- Quickly stir in onions; then stir in celery, bell pepper, and garlic. Cook 5 minutes till translucent.
- Add parsley and thyme; stir. Add 1/2 shrimp stock, tomato sauce, cayenne, paprika, and white pepper. Bring to boil, stirring, then reduce to simmer. Add remaining stock and cook 30 minutes, or till volume is reduced by slightly more than half.* (Can hold here, if needed.) Taste and season with Tony’s and hot sauce.
- Add shrimp and stir. Cook 5 minutes or till just done.
- Stir in green onions & butter. Serve over rice.
A. Goldstein, 3-31-2013
*I ended up cooking mine about 50 minutes to get thickness I wanted.