I cook my shrimp Creole the easy way, far from New Orleans, and call it prawn Creole. It is still one of the most wonderfully tasty dishes and something different for the European palate – even though Creole cuisine has its roots in France and Spain, among others.
In search of a new taste
This dish saved my mental health and my faith in cooking. In the midst of the pandemic, with no going out and limited cooking options, I was getting very weary. The same dishes, seasoned with the same old spices, served on the same old plates! I obviously love cooking, with passion, but there must be variety – otherwise it becomes a drudge.
Chicken, prawn, meatballs, salad, broccoli, beans – we cooked things we liked because comfort food made us feel better in those dire times, but sameness crept in surreptitiously. I tried my best: I got new takes on fried rice but the result was fried rice every third day. For a month.
You’d think I’d have spent all that time experimenting with new recipes, new dishes and new flavours, wouldn’t you? But like bands who had gone into inspirational hiding without gigs, I was completely devoid of ideas not being able to play them out to the public of friends and family. (The Weather Man is gracious audience but his is a biased reception.)
Also, I CRAVED food cooked by someone else. It’s not true that if you can cook well, your own cooking tastes the best to you – quite the opposite. Regardless of the obvious benefit of no effort involved, it is always interesting and inspirational to compare and learn.
Plus, there is something special about restaurant food that makes it always taste better. I know that mainly it is the amount of salt they add to food but that must be an oversimplification: when I add lots of salt to mine, it ends up inedible.
So by the time I spotted the shrimp Creole recipe in NY Times Cooking, I was desperate for something different and Creole cuisine seemed just the ticket. Especially that my experience of Creole cooking is scant, to say the least: a couple of visits to restaurant located very far from Louisiana.
Creole cooking has a fascinatingly vibrant history, as I learned from the absorbing article in American Heritage. A true melting pot of French, Spanish, Native American and African influences and ingredients, it must be unique in its combination of varied ingredients and techniques resulting in a fantastic harmony.
Gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée and sauce Creole are all the paragon of how to fuse a recipe with available, local ingredients. It’s the absolutely best of what I call ‘Immigrant’s Song’: cuisine developed through placing emigrees’ baggage on their new house shelves.
The best thing about Creole sauce, in my view, is that it allows veering off the tracks. Not one for apostate bashing (like the Italian chefs), Creole cooking is pleasantly flexible, or so I hope and understand.
As long as you make your roux and use appropriate seasoning, the question of whether you use tomato puree, tinned tomatoes or fresh tomato sauce is a free choice. After all, the cooking developed to use ‘what [Creoles and Cajuns] could grow, catch or shoot and cook in one big pot.’
My take on prawn Creole
And so I use in my sauce base a leek instead of celery and spring onion instead of yellow onion because I find the overall taste nicer with those. I make my own Creole seasoning after the instruction in NY Times’ Vallery Lomas and use it copiously all the time, not just for shrimp or chicken Creole, but because it’s simply wonderful.
The sauce is simple, especially that the famed roux (flour and butter mix toasted brown) is made after the vegetables have been softened, thus making it less risky to burn and spoil. Seasoning, stock, reducing it to a desired thickness and it’s ready for the prawns which will cook in a matter of minutes and taste gorgeous even if not live, freshly caught in the bayou.
And the first time I cooked it, in the time of cooking ennui, it was a revelation. My taste buds perked up quizzically, not trusting it was something I have produced myself after plates and plates of lockdown sameness. What a burst of New Orleans flavour! Quite like eating out somewhere special!
And I was careful not to make us bored of the dish and reserved it for special occasion. Though I could not resist cooking the chicken version, with the Creole holy trinity of celery, green pepper and onion this time soon afterwards…