A shrimp creole for our times
By Vallery Lomas
Louisiana Creole cuisine is eclectic.
Uniting the flavors and fare of West Africa, France, Spain, the Caribbean and the American South, it highlights the various cultures that resided in South Louisiana in the 18th century.
And, as food often does, it transcended the otherwise-segregated society, bringing together heritages on a plate.
Creole cuisine is often confused and used interchangeably with its cousin, Cajun cuisine. Both use a roux, a thickener of flour and fat cooked together to add flavor and color to a dish. And both use the “holy trinity” as a base for dishes: onions, bell peppers and celery sautéed in oil.
And both came from Southern Louisiana. However, Cajun food, with its smoked meats and rice-laden dishes like boudin and jambalaya, has its roots in more rural parts of the region, while Creole cuisine, with dishes such as grits and étouffée, came from New Orleans.
But most notably, Creole cuisine is adaptable — a trait many of us have tuned into these past tumultuous and unpredictable months. We have learned to be savvy with resources, while using what’s available. Similarly, Creole cuisine revels in improvisation.
In this shrimp Creole, for instance, you can play with the depth of the roux. The recipe calls for a peanut butter-colored roux, a medium roux, but, if you want more umami, you can cook it a little darker. Still, if you want to taste the delicate seafood flavor more robustly, you can opt for a lighter roux.
And don’t let a missing ingredient or two keep you from preparing this dish. The roux can be made with just about any fat — from vegetable oil to rendered animal fat. If you’re missing a spice or two, that’s perfectly fine, and you will still get a worthy, comforting stew. And if you’d like a little more heat, increase the hot sauce to your liking.
And, of course, rounding out the flavors is the Creole seasoning. You’ll find similar spice blends in just about every Louisiana kitchen, and in just about any supermarket, but you can make your own: In this dish, the combination of spices and dried herbs (basil, thyme, oregano and bay leaves) adds layers of flavor. But if you have fresh herbs, use them to add even more vibrancy.
Embrace the capacity to adapt that we have all honed in on these recent months, and nothing will keep you from making an excellent shrimp Creole.
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 50 minutes
For the Creole Seasoning (optional):
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or less, if desired)
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
For the Shrimp:
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 teaspoons homemade or store-bought Creole seasoning
1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, thinly sliced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce (no salt added)
1 to 2 teaspoons hot sauce, to taste (optional)
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
2 dried bay leaves
Fine sea salt and black pepper
1/4 cup chopped scallions
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves and tender stems
Steamed rice, for serving
1. Make the optional Creole seasoning: Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir together. The seasoning makes about 1/4 cup; store it in a closed container in a cool, dry place.
2. Toss the raw shrimp with 1 teaspoon Creole seasoning and set aside.
3. In a Dutch oven or large, heavy skillet, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Sprinkle the flour on top and stir constantly with a wooden spoon until a roux the color of peanut butter forms, about 10 minutes.
4. Add the onion, celery and bell pepper, increase the heat to medium and cook until softened, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, 1 minute.
5. Stir in 1/3 cup water, then the tomato sauce, hot sauce (if using), sugar, thyme, oregano, basil, bay leaves, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper and the remaining 1 teaspoon Creole seasoning. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes until thickened, stirring occasionally to make sure that the bottom doesn’t burn. (If needed, add more water.)
6. Once the stew has thickened, add the seasoned shrimp and simmer until opaque and cooked through, about 5 minutes, turning each piece halfway through the cooking time. Taste and adjust seasoning.
7. Remove from the heat and let stand for 10 minutes, uncovered. Sprinkle with scallions and parsley, and serve over steamed rice.