It’s Mardi Gras time in The Big Easy! This may not mean much to you, but it’s a sweetly sentimental time for us. The day after Aaron and I got married, almost 15 years ago, we didn’t head off on some amazing, romantic, tropical honeymoon. Instead, we moved from our safe haven in the Midwest to an unknown world called “New Orleans”. Aaron had already been in school down there for a year, but I’d never lived south of Indianapolis. This was a whole new world for me in so many ways. Not only was I jumping into the adventure of marriage, I was moving someplace that was so incredibly different from anywhere I’d ever lived before. It was scary, I’m not going to lie. I was terrified. I was fresh out of college, had a new husband on my arm, a new apartment, no friends, and no job. The first time I opened a cabinet in my new kitchen, a giant cockroach (or, Palmetto Bug as they prefer to be called down there) skittered across the floor, right in front of me. I screamed. A roach was my new Welcome Wagon lady.
After some time there, we managed to settle in. I found a job, Aaron plugged away at school and we learned how to keep our little apartment fairly bug-free. (After years in the South, I’ve come to accept that life down here is never, ever 100% bug free.) Best of all, we made some amazing friends. We were so far away from family that these friends became our family, they took us in and made sure we were well taken care of. They taught us about their city and their traditions, their culture and, God bless ’em, their food. The food! Oh my goodness, the food! It’s no secret that they know how to feed you down there. We ate…a lot. After our four years in New Orleans, we moved to Washington DC and I joined Weight Watchers.
Some of our fondest memories of our time down there revolve around Mardi Gras. As the resident Yankee, I had to be schooled in true Mardi Gras tradition. It’s more than I ever imagined. It’s so much more than the drunken college fest you’ve heard about. Yes, it’s a giant party, but it reaches much farther than the footage of an overcrowded Bourbon Street that you see on TV. Mardi Gras is about celebration, but at its heart, it’s about celebrating tradition with friends and family. The countless numbers of parades spill out into the suburbs of the city and the small towns throughout the Gulf South. The kids even have a few days off from school in order to celebrate. Families, with kids of every age, line the streets. They spend hours calling up to the people on the floats, hoping they’ll throw some beads or candy their way. “Throw me something, Mister!” It’s not all “Girls Gone Wild” during Mardi Gras time, it’s a family tradition.
Before and after the parades, we’d eat. New Orleans has a cuisine all its own, but that cuisine is steeped in the blending of so many cultures. It’s a beautiful thing. When we lived there, I just about overdosed on shrimp. It’s plentiful down there, for sure, and nobody does a finer job cooking it up. I was in shrimp lover’s heaven! One of my favorite New Orleans dishes is Shrimp Creole and I ate it every chance I got. It’s spicy (but not too spicy) and rich (but not too rich) and delicious (lots of delicious). Best of all, it it’s the perfect vehicle for amazing Gulf Coast shrimp. Thankfully, my mother-in-law (not from New Orleans, but she knows good food) turned me on to a fantastic Shrimp Creole recipe that wasn’t too intimidating to make in my own kitchen…even that teeny tiny kitchen with the unwelcome guest in our first apartment.
In honor of Mardi Gras this year, I decided to whip up some good ol’ Shrimp Creole!
First things first, I prepped my ingredients. New Orleans cuisine, as I mentioned, is steeped in tradition. Traditionally, many local dishes make use of “The Holy Trinity”: chopped celery, onion, and green bell pepper. I chopped up my veggies and added a couple of cloves of chopped garlic. I also measured out four cups of diced tomatoes.
I sautéed up my “Trinity +1” in a bit of oil and then added the tomatoes, some water and spices. I didn’t add anything over the top or out of the ordinary, just some paprika, cayenne pepper, salt, and a couple of bay leaves. Simple ingredients, when brought together the right way, can add up to something great!
I stirred this together and then it simmer for 30 minutes. It was a few hours until dinner time, so at this point, I turned off the heat, covered the pot and let the sauce hang out until it was just a few minutes before we wanted to eat.
When it was almost time to eat, I gently brought the sauce back up to a simmer and stirred in the shrimp.
After just a few minutes, the shrimp pinked up and they were done! At this point, I added a slurry made with just a bit of cornstarch and water, to thicken up the sauce just a bit.
I removed the bay leaves and we were ready to go!
I served this over white, long grain rice with some fresh green beans and crusty bread. A dinner in New Orleans is never short on the bread. You need it to help sop up all of those wonderful sauces!
To our friends in and around New Orleans, we hope you are enjoying a wonderful Mardi Gras season. Our dinner last night, though delicious, may not have been as exciting as standing on Canal Street during the Endymion parade, but we were thinking of you and enjoying our memories! We miss you and hope our paths cross again soon…and that we can grab a meal together.
HAPPY MARDI GRAS!
Adapted from American Cooking: Creole and Acadian
- ½ cup vegetable or canola oil
- 2 cups chopped onions
- 1 cup chopped green pepper
- 1 cup chopped celery
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 cups diced canned tomatoes
- 2½ - 3 lbs. uncooked, cleaned medium-sized shrimp
- 1 cup water
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 Tbsp. paprika
- ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
- 1 Tbsp. salt
- 2 Tbsp. cornstarch mixed with ¼ cup cold water
- 6-8 cups cooked, long grain, white rice
- Heat the oil in a dutch oven over medium high heat. Add the onions, green pepper, celery, and garlic and cook until the vegetables are soft and translucent, about five minutes. Stir frequently.
- Stir in the tomatoes, water, bay leaves, paprika, cayenne pepper and salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, partially cover the pot and, stirring occasionally, simmer for 30 minutes. (The recipe can be prepared up to this point earlier in the day. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let it sit on the stove until you're ready to eat. Bring back up to a simmer before finishing.)
- Stir in the shrimp and continue to simmer, partially covered, for about 5 minutes or until the shrimp are pink and firm to the touch.
- Stir the cornstarch and water to recombine it and stir into the sauce. While stirring, bring the mixture to a boil for 2-3 minutes. Discard the bay leaves, taste for seasoning and serve over rice.
- Serves 6-8