Comedian Jim Gaffigan once joked that all Mexican dishes were meat, cheese and tortillas. Cajun and Creole cuisine certainly could replace his ingredients with rice, trinity and seafood for the same joke. It’s like when your grandma says, “all that heavy metal sounds the same.” Rap, bluegrass, jazz, whatever. Of course it sounds the same. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have specific genres of music or cuisine.
I see both sides. Any style of cooking may seem like a series of repackaged recipes. But when you’re well-versed in one style, every dish is starkly different. Italian food is more than pasta, protein and sauce, German food isn’t all pork and kraut, and don’t get me started on Asian restaurants.
Cajun and Creole cuisines share some dishes, the latter of which may have a propensity for adding tomatoes, but, otherwise, they most certainly share ingredients. Jambalaya is a rice dish with ham, sausage, chicken or seafood with the holy trinity of onion, bell pepper and celery (and usually garlic) cooked in oil with a little tomato, giving it that red/orange color, as the rice is cooked with the “sauce” of meat and veggies. A little Worcestershire is a must, and a bay leaf or two helps.
Shrimp Creole starts with butter and trinity, Worcestershire and bay leaves, but is heavy on the tomatoes. Shrimp can be cooked separately to avoid overcooking, but if you’re careful you can throw them in for the last couple of minutes. Rice is most definitely cooked separately in this dish, as it is spooned over (or under, depending on presentation). This is tangy and buttery, compared to the oiliness of jambalaya.
Gumbo starts with an oil-based roux (or with bacon fat) that can be cooked to a medium or dark color, followed by trinity and often seafood spooned over rice. You get the picture, right? There is a thread here. You’ve had gumbo and it ranges from good to great, only bad when the cook burns the roux or forgets the salt.
Finally we have étouffée. This is the combination of all of these dishes into one. I think of it as jambalaya with a roux, shrimp Creole without too many tomatoes and a blonde gumbo that isn’t soupy. Étouffée is the good parts of all these recipes rolled into one. A thick, buttery sauce with a little zip and chunky veggies with rice on the side. That gives you the chance to determine how diluted you want it to be.
Give the gumbo, jambalaya and Creole their due, but étouffée is good enough to put over anything. Some restaurants serve it as a side over pasta. I love it over grits. But an omelette topped with our rich crawfish or shrimp sauce is the breakfast dream come true. If Waffle House had it I’d put it on my hash browns.
Étouffée is more common when crawfish are in season and you find yourself in a peeling mood, but of all the things to do with leftover crawfish, I don’t mind waiting until they’re out of season. This is one of the few cases where I’m fine with using the frozen crawfish tails, plus I am also using fresh shrimp.
Shrimp and Crawfish Étouffée
1 stick of butter
Holy trinity of one onion, one bell pepper, one or two stalks of celery, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup flour
½ medium tomato, diced
1 to 2 cups chicken stock
1 pound frozen crawfish tails, thawed
½ pound fresh Gulf shrimp
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
¾ cup green onion, chopped
Hot sauce to taste
2 cups cooked rice
Melt butter in a heavy skillet. Add the trinity, cooking until softened. Add garlic and cook for two minutes. Sprinkle in the flour and stir constantly with a wooden spoon as if you are trying to sop up all of the grease and liquid. Cook for three minutes and add tomatoes and Creole seasoning, cooking another two minutes.
Add chicken stock a little at a time, still stirring frequently to loosen up the roux (sort of a reverse roux, really) and take it to a gravy-like consistency. You may have to add more stock throughout the process should it get too thick. Add the crawfish tails and shrimp over medium heat and splash in the Worcestershire sauce and parsley. Cook just until the shrimp begin to turn pink.
Turn the heat to low and toss in the green onion. For me, the saltiness of the butter, Worcestershire and Creole seasoning is enough, but if you need to adjust, by all means do. Black pepper is fine, but don’t over-salt this because you see TV chefs stylishly throwing handfuls of it into everything they do.
You could get fancy and have a bed of étouffée in a shallow bowl with a short tower of rice on top. I go easy on the rice and heavy on the sauce so every grain is well coated. The combination of shrimp and crawfish makes this much more a star of the show than a lowly side dish.
Tabasco is fine with this, but Crystal worked great last night. Let’s just be responsible and use something from Louisiana as it deserves, and not Sriracha, Cholula or Texas Pete. Save your habaneros and ghost peppers for another occasion and let the dish shine through.
I am done with swimming pools for the year and am yearning for true fall weather so badly that I would almost consider moving northward, but food like this keeps me tethered to the Gulf Coast. I don’t care if we use the same ingredients over and over again. Line them all up and I’ll eat them until they’re gone. It’s much better than a Hot Pocket!
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