Spicy, warm, and perfect for the middle of winter!
I think it's pretty safe to say that spicy food can be the perfect thing to eat year round. Sure, I like variety too, but spicy food is (perhaps surprisingly for some people) good to eat in hot weather, and nothing hits the spot like a good bowl of chili on a cold day.
But if you're tired of chili (as one of my frequent taste testers apparently is), I've definitely got a dish for you to try. Although it's not quite a one pot meal, it's close to it, and it doesn't take too much time or finesse to get right. It's also a dish with roots back to the early, early days of New Orleans, and it's definitely something Marie-Grace could have enjoyed with her father after a long day of volunteering at an orphanage, or exploring the city with Cécile.
To people outside of New Orleans, Cajun and Creole seem like interchangeable shorthand to describe the unique cuisine the city's famous for. In reality, they're not one and the same at all. Sure, there are similarities, but they come from different places, have different influences, and often use different ingredients. Creole cuisine actually predates Cajun food, and pulls its influences from the earliest European settlers of Louisiana, who adapted some of the local ingredients they saw their new Native neighbors using and then pulled on new influences from African slaves. Eventually, a distinctive local cuisine developed with a heavy focus on seafood, what with being right on the Gulf of Mexico and everything.
Cajun cuisine came later. Cajuns were actually originally Acadians, who were French settlers of what is now Nova Scotia who were forcibly kicked out of their homeland in 1755 by the British. A large population settled in the swamps of Louisiana and used their skills in and affinity for living off the land and hunting they'd developed in Canada to make the best of their new living conditions. They became an important part of Louisiana food and culture, but it's not quite the food Marie-Grace and Cécile would have been eating in their urban environment. A lot of restaurants outside of New Orleans advertise Cajun cuisine as being authentically New Orleans, but in reality, it's more common in the areas around the city than in the city itself. If you go to New Orleans, chances are you're actually going to be eating more Creole dishes than Cajun.
The recipe I decided to try out comes from none other than Emeril Lagasse, so there was a lot of joking around about me not saying BAM enough while I threw in ingredients. You can access the recipe yourself on FoodNetwork.com, and it got picked because it got good reviews and seemed like a pretty basic recipe. I like going out on a limb sometimes, but since this was something I'd never eaten before, let alone cooked for other people, something basic seemed like the better way to go.
Like most New Orleans favorites, this recipe starts off with the holy trinity: onions, bell peppers and celery. Technically, these peppers should be green, but we had one red and one green and made do. The recipe instructs you to melt down a stick of butter in a large pan and then add two cups of chopped onions, one cup of chopped bell peppers and one cup of chopped celery to it. These get seasoned with salt and cayenne pepper, and then sauteed for six to eight minutes, which is all pretty straight forward.
Then comes two bay leaves, two pounds of peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes and a tablespoon of chopped garlic. In writing this, I realized we forgot to peel our tomatoes, so I guess this is why Emeril would chop me. If he ever guest judged on Chopped, anyway.
This also gets seasoned with salt and cayenne pepper, and then you leave it it simmer for fifteen minutes. The recipe says you can add some water if the mixture gets too thick, but mine seemed pretty stew-like through the whole thing.
Next comes a dash of hot sauce (Tabasco is traditional) and a dash of Worcestershire sauce for seasoning, and then you add a mixture of two tablespoons of flour with a cup of water to thicken it. Now, this isn't a roux, which is another thing that sets this apart from a gumbo. This is just a trick for thickening it a little bit, and doesn't do much of anything to the overall flavor. This cooks for about five minutes.
Now comes the shrimp. This is definitely something you should prepare in advance, but I decided to include at this part of the recipe discussion because it's where it is in the original.
Emeril includes a recipe for "Emeril's Essence Creole Seasoning" or "Bayou Blast", which is basically a heck of a lot of spices mixed together to coat your two and a half pounds of shrimp. You take two and a half tablespoons of paprika, two tablespoons of salt, two tablespoons of garlic powder, and then one tablespoon each of black pepper, onion powder, cayenne pepper, dried oregano and dried thyme. This all gets mixed together and then generously dumped all over your shrimp.
Which then gets added into the rest of the creole!
Shrimp cooks pretty quickly, so they only need about six or so minutes to be fully done. They'll shrink up and get pink, which means it's time for a half cup of chopped green onions and two tablespoons of chopped parsley, which gets stirred in.
And you're done! Spoon it over white rice, and you're ready to serve.
This was a delightfully easy recipe, even if it did call for a lot of prep. I'd definitely recommend giving it a shot, even if you're not the most confident chef because it feeds a crowd and really just requires basic direction following to get right. There's also definitely room to play with it if you want it more or less spicy, or if you're not a fan of a particular spice, or have a different idea for a flavor profile. I like that kind of flexibility in a recipe even if I'm not personally very creative in the kitchen because I know it's something other people might like. For me, the big selling point was the fact that besides the prep work, this was pretty quick to throw together and didn't get me stressed out about making sure dinner was on the table on time.
Now, I like spicy food. I really do. But I don't like food that's so spicy, I don't feel like I can actually taste what I'm eating, or enjoy what I am shoveling in my mouth. So I'm being totally honest when I say that this shrimp creole was really, really tasty, but it also can and will knock your socks off if you're not careful. Maybe I was too generous with the cayenne pepper, and there was a lot going on spice wise in the dish, but either way, I didn't enjoy this as much as I really wanted to. Part of the problem was that I was just feeling kind of queasy all day long, and sort of only wanted to eat bland things, and this definitely was not bland! So I only ate a small portion and let everyone else take the leftovers home. I'd definitely like to try it again when I'm feeling less ill.
On the plus side, my audience was very happy to bring the leftovers home, even though they all admitted it was super, super spicy as well. As I said, I've never actually had shrimp creole before, but those who did said this tasted like restaurant quality creole, which was very flattering to hear. I do think Emeril needs to get most of the credit though - I just followed his instructions. But if you want to make restaurant quality food to impress your friends and family, this is definitely the recipe for you! Plus, you're enjoying a dish that people have been gobbling up for literally centuries. It's hard to turn down a favorite like that!
Better get a glass of milk to wash that down, Marie-Grace!