On the Bayou

In the week between Christmas and the New Year, I took Mark to New Orleans for a surprise 60th birthday celebration. When I told him, he was so surprised and excited he went from 60 to 16 in 6 seconds - faster than a Ferrari! He was downright giddy.

I told him a week in advance so he would have some time to plan his historic adventures. Not that this adventure would be of historic proportions, just that he would want to plan to see as many historic homes, plantations and museums as humanly possible in three days.

For me - don't be shocked - the trip was all about the food: beignets, gumbos, étouffées, po' boys.... you get the idea.

As it turned out almost all modern New Orleans Cajun and Creole cuisine is off limits to me because of my allergy. I was fascinated to find a few reprints of antique cookbooks with little or no garlic used. Sadly, the restaurants aren't using these cookbooks!

But it didn't stop us from eating well... and often! In general, almost any restaurant can make at least ONE dish without garlic but, in NOLA, that is not the case. I called two in advance and was told, "No way!" (not in those exact terms.)

The person who took our reservation at one well-known restaurant, Cochon, said there would be no problem at all. Upon arrival and reiteration of the garlic allergy, we discovered that whoever answered the phone was dead wrong.

Our server - I wish I could remember her name - was delightful and chatted a bit about this difficult allergy. She tossed her brassy-mohawked head back, saying, "Cher, in Nawlins celery, onions and peppers are the Holy Trinity, and garlic is the Holy Ghost!" WE laughed, and she inquired in the kitchen. We were relieved to find there was something on the menu we could have - a bacon and oyster sandwich with one of its sauces omitted. Fine by us!

We laughed, chatted with people at neighboring tables, and went on to enjoy our dinner, with sides of creamy grits and a really nice bottle of wine. Mark called the sandwich a Po' Boy with bacon, I called it a BLT with oysters.

When we got back from New Orleans, we felt somewhat cheated by being unable to try all that great Cajun and Creole food. So out came the antique cookbooks! The first Cajun meal we made when we got home was a shrimp étouffée. It has a very thick stew-like consistency and can be served as-is, or over rice. We opted for the rice.

While purchasing an armload of cookbooks in A Tisket A Tasket Bookstore, I talked to Ruth, the manager, about local food ways. To my surprise, she explained that gumbo is not a main course; it is served as a soup prior to a full meal (That seems to have been forgotten because restaurants all over town served gumbo like it was a roasted turkey).

Étouffée, on the other hand, IS served as a main course and is thicker than gumbo. I can see why, too - it is incredibly hearty and has that 'stick to your ribs' quality. One of the old cookbooks said it should be "thick enough for a fork, and thin enough for a spoon."

So, grab some shrimp, some Cajun seasoning, a fork, and spoon, and laissez les bons temps roulez!

~ David

Shrimp Étouffée

8 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped yellow onion
1/2 of a green bell pepper, diced
1/2 of a red bell pepper, diced
1 cup sliced celery
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, more if desired
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning (recipe follows)
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups shrimp stock or 1 cup clam juice and 1 cup water
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 pounds large shrimp peeled and deveined *
Rice, for serving
Chopped fresh chives, for serving, optional


* When we first made this, we used large shrimp but discovered they were sometimes awkward to cut. Lately, we have been using the small salad shrimp - which often come pre-cooked - and they work beautifully! (January 2014)

Melt the butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Using a wooden spoon, stir in flour to form a paste. Continue cooking over medium-low heat, stirring continuously, until the mixture turns a caramel color and gives off a nutty aroma, about 15 to 20 minutes (Mark thinks it smells like baking pie crust!).

To the roux, add the onion, green pepper, red pepper and celery, and cook covered over medium-low heat about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are limp.

Add the black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, Cajun seasoning, parsley, and salt. Cook for 1 minute.

Add the shrimp stock and tomatoes with their juice; stir to blend. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes.

Add shrimp and stir. It will take about 5-7 minutes for shrimp to cook, depending on the size of the shrimp; do not overcook.

Remove from heat, transfer the étouffée to a tureen and serve with rice. Garnish with the chopped chives.

Serves 6.

David's Cajun Seasoning Blend

2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons cayenne
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons dried shallots
2 tablespoons ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme

Place all ingredients in a spice grinder and pulverize.

Makes about 3/4 cup.

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