Shrimp Crostini with Blackened Tilapia

Recently, on my way home from work, I had a sudden craving for shrimp toast, you know, the classic Chinese takeout appetizer.  I wanted to try making it at home, even though I’d never attempted it. 

There’s always that moment, during the drive home, when I consider whether I know exactly how to make the thing I am thinking of, or if I will need to improvise.  This was definitely going to require some improvisation.   

I imagined how shrimp toast tastes as it’s pulled out of the fryer.  Hot and crunchy on the outside and soft and creamy shrimpiness on the inside.  And then, as I waited at a red light, I came to a sad realization.  Shrimp toast is great when it’s hot and fresh but given time, it cools and becomes a squishy, oily, shrimp-flavored sponge.  The craving for takeout-style shrimp toast was gone.

I took a moment to think about what I was actually craving.  In my mind, I imagined a baked, creamy shrimp spread on top of thick slices of toasted French bread.  I couldn’t recall what the dish was actually called but I was evoking crostini.  I kept referring to it as “shrimp toast” as I drove home and, in truth, that’s really all it is…it’s just not the deep fried Chinese takeout variety.

Since I was already in a seafood frame of mind I decided to pair the crostini with New Orleans-style blackened fish.

Shrimp Crostini with Blackened Tilapia

Ingredients for the Shrimp Crostini:

½ lb fresh shrimp, peeled, deveined and finely chopped

¼ cup diced green onions, chopped fine

3 Tbs mayonnaise

3 Tbs cream cheese

1 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp Cajun seasoning

½ tsp salt

9 slices of good quality, fresh French bread (1” thick)

2 Tbs butter

Directions:

Peel and devein the shrimp.  Rinse thoroughly under cool water.  Chop into small pieces.

Add the shrimp and remaining ingredients, (excluding the bread!) to a large mix bowl.  Beat the heck out everything with a whisk, fork or any other suitable weapon. 

Prepare a 9” round ceramic backing dish by spreading 2 tablespoons of oil across the bottom and sides of the dish.  Wipe away excess with a paper towel.

Add the shrimp mixture to the dish and press the mixture down firmly with your fingers, spreading it to the edges of the dish. 

Bake in a 400° oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the top begins to brown.  Remove and cool on a wire rack.

While the shrimp cools, prepare the French bread.

Slice the bread into 1” thick pieces. 

Melt the butter and brush over both sides of the bread slices.

Place the pieces of bread in a 9” glass pie plate.

Using a spoon, or a small spatula, add dollops of the baked shrimp mixture to the toast.  Press the toast together as tightly as possible.

Put the pie plate in a 400° oven for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the sides of the toast are crisp.  Remove and cool on a wire rack.

Ingredients for the Blackened Tilapia:

3 Tbs Cajun seasoning

1 tsp oregano

1 tsp dried onion flake, ground fine

1 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp cayenne powder

1 tsp dried thyme

4 tilapia filets (about 1 lb)

Directions:

Mix all of the dried seasonings together.

Spread the seasonings across a large platter.

Lay the tilapia filets on the seasoning and press down firmly with your hands to coat the fish.  Turn the fish over and repeat. 

Heat a heavy steel skillet or cast iron skillet to high heat. 

Once the skillet is screaming hot, add the butter.  Just as soon as the butter is almost completely melted, which will happen quickly, add the filets.

Stand back.  Don’t mess with the fish.  After about two minutes, the butter will brown.  Carefully turn the fish over with a large flat spatula and let the fish fry for another two minutes.  Press the fish with the side of your thumb.  If it feels firm, it’s done.  If it doesn’t feel firm, it will in about another 30 seconds.

Carefully remove the fish with a spatula and place on a serving dish. 

Serve on a bed of steamed rice and steamed broccoli. 

Louisiana hot sauce is the preferred condiment for the Shrimp Crostini and Blackened Fish.  Use as directed.

Crawfish and Shrimp Etouffee

Here’s one of my many mottos:  If it’s spicy, there’s a good chance I will like it. 

Having lived most of my life in the South, I have had the joy of eating some excellent Tex-Mex and Cajun food.  Both cuisines tend to lean toward the spicy side and I like to make it lean just a little bit more!

Etouffee and gumbo are similar in that they are both served over rice but gumbo is more like a stew, comprised of various types of seafood, meats and vegetables.  Etouffee usually only has one type of meat and the sauce is thicker than gumbo.  Crawfish Etouffee is the quintessential Etouffee but don’t rule out the shrimp or chicken versions.  Use what you have in your kitchen. 

Etouffee, which means “smothered” in French, is a classic Louisiana dish.  There are two basic types of Etoufee:  Creole and Cajun.  The Creole variety uses a dark roux and the flavors are deep and complex.  The Cajun variety uses a light roux and is spicier than the Creole version. 

30 minute Crawfish and Shrimp Etouffee

Yes, this only took 30 minutes to cook from start to finish.  But, here’s the catch.  I did a lot of prep work a few days before I made this dish.  Previously, I cleaned and de-veined the shrimp, parboiled them and stored the shrimp in the refrigerator.  I peeled the steamed crawfish and stored them in the refrigerator. 

I made stock reductions from the crawfish and the shrimp and then I made compound butter using the crawfish and shrimp reductions.  All of that work took a considerable amount of time, but it was worth it.

The rest was easy.

Ingredients:

1 ounce compound shrimp butter

2 ounces compound crawfish butter

2 garlic cloves, mashed

1 Tbs unsalted butter

½ onion, chopped

3 ribs of celery, chopped

2 ounces flour

3 green onions, chopped

2 Tbs tomato sauce

1 ½ Tbs Cajun seasoning

1 cup water

½ lb raw shrimp (peeled and deveined)

½ lb crawfish meat

Directions:

In a large skillet, add the shrimp butter and crawfish butter.  Turn heat to medium/low.  

As the butter melts, add garlic and sauté for about one minute.

Add 1 tablespoon of butter and the onion and continue stirring for another minute.

Add the celery and stir.  Reduce heat to low and simmer for about 5 minutes. 

Add the flour and whisk or stir, to form a roux. 

Add 1 cup of water and stir until a thick sauce forms.

Add tomato sauce, green onions and Cajun seasoning.  Stir to combine.

Add parboiled shrimp and crawfish.  Stir briefly.

Serve warm with white rice.

Crawfish Season!

Hooray! The crawfish are here, the crawfish are here!

Every year, around this time, crawfish and shrimp vendors start popping up at local gas station parking lots. They set up shop on the weekends, with pick up trucks and trailers for about 6 weeks and then they vanish, as quickly and as quietly as they arrived, returning to the bayous. But, while they are here, I have access to the biggest, freshest and most succulent gulf shrimp and wonderful, spicy, hot Cajun crawfish .

Most of these vendors only take cash. I rarely carry cash but, when these guys roll into town I don’t mind making a trip to the nearest ATM and withdrawing money from my bank account. I drive back to the seafood guys waving cash in my hand. Yes, it’s really that good.

I remember a time, just a few years ago, when I saw the crawfish guys boiling their shrimp and cawfish and I panicked, realizing that I was nearing the end of their short season. It was Saturday, around 5:00 pm. I drove the 3 miles to the bank teller machine and withdrew some cash. By the time I returned, they had already packed up and were gone. Gone! Gone for good, at least until the next year.

Never again. Lesson learned. I will not let the moment escape me. Even if all I get is a tiny sample of some briny shrimp or a few scrawny crawfish, I won’t pass up the opportunity to savor some of the finest food this world has to offer.

I am not a creole chef and I wasn’t raised on the bayou. I’m not Cajun…I’m Texan true and true, but I am forever mesmerized and enamored by the lure of fresh gulf seafood and funky, backwater fare.

Something good happens when the shrimp are set to boil. The world is a happier place when hot, red crawfish are pulled from the pot. Mystery and wonder fills the air. Friends are made instantly. Smiles become contagious. Romance is at hand. No struggles, no strife.

Grab a drink. Find a seat. Tell us a story.

Gumbo (Part II: The Intimidator)

At the heart of every good gumbo lies a good roux. 

I probably make 3 or 4 roux every week but they are of the small variety.  You know, two tablespoons of butter, two tablespoons of flour added to two cups of stock or broth.  A small roux takes just a few minutes to prepare and it usually come out just fine.

I have been telling myself that I make gumbo every year or two.  I think that’s because I really enjoy gumbo.  The truth of the matter is that I have probably only made it four times, (now five times).  As much as I love a good hot bowl of gumbo, I dread making the roux.  There are very few things in life that can vex me like a making a big batch of roux. 

Making roux for a gumbo is not easy; at least it’s not easy for me.  The volume of the roux needed is much larger than my normal roux.  Additionally, the roux needs to cook longer to achieve a deep, rich lustrous color and flavor.  Lastly, pushing the cooking process too far results in a burnt roux, which I am unfortunately prone to doing.  If a roux burns it must be tossed and another one must be made.  Nothing good ever happens by attempting to save a burnt roux. 

The good German lager is for me, not the roux!

Once you start a roux you can’t leave it alone until it has finished.  A roux must be stirred constantly to prevent the flour from burning.  Even the tiniest amount of burnt flour will affect the entire roux.

My step-by-step method for making a roux:

1) Add equal amounts of oil and flour to a Dutch oven (over low/medium heat).

2) Stir continuously, making sure to scrape the bottom and edges of the pot as you stir.

3) Keep stirring while the roux goes from blonde, to tan, to mahogany, to chocolate brown.

4) Taste a sample of the roux, after allowing it to sufficiently cool.

5) Detect a hint of burnt flavor, throw away the roux and wipe the Dutch oven clean.

6) Repeat.

Three more important pieces of advice that are often overlooked:

1) Use the bathroom before starting the roux.  You won’t be able to break away from the action until the roux is finished (maybe 45 minutes to an hour).

2) Pour yourself a drink and make sure that it’s within arm’s reach as you stir.

3) Keep a small aloe vera plant in the kitchen, close to the stove, in case of burns.

As for the aloe vera, it’s really good for minor burns.  Roux is jokingly referred to as Cajun Napalm.  Even a tiny drop of the hot roux can cause your skin to blister.  I got two blisters from this batch.  I would have had three blisters but, when I got hit for the third time, I quickly pinched off the tip of an aloe leaf and rubbed it on the burn. 

Look closely and you’ll see I removed a tip from a leaf, at the right.
My drink of choice for the 1st roux was Spaten Lager. A nice Cabernet Sauvignon got me through the 2nd roux. Note the flat ended spatula…this is essential!

As I mentioned, I burned the first roux and had to start another one.  I cooked the roux over low heat both times. 

For the first attempt I used 3 cups canola oil and 3 cups flour.  I cooked the roux for 67 minutes and it reached a near-perfect chocolate brown color, but the roux had a slight burnt flavor. 

For the second attempt I decided to use 2 cups canola oil, 1 cup lard and 3 cups flour.  I cooked the second roux for 50 minutes. I brought the roux to a dark tan and shut the heat down before it turned to mahogany.  I didn’t want to run the risk of the burning the roux a second time!

This recipe makes about 2 gallons of gumbo (25 to 30 servings).

Ingredients:

1 lb medium sized shrimp, shell on and deveined

1 1/2 lbs cooked chicken breast, cut into 1/2″ cubes

3 cups canola oil

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 lb Andouille, cut into 1/2″ thick slices

1 large onion, chopped

1 bell pepper, chopped

1 large jalapeño, seeded and sliced

2 cups celery, chopped

1 whole head of garlic, minced

1 1/2 cups parsley, chopped

1 Tbs dried thyme

1 Tbs bay leaves

32 oz chicken stock

32 oz vegetable stock

1/2 cup shrimp stock reduction

12 oz okra, chopped

1 lb. crawfish tail meat

1 lb. crabmeat

1/2 cup clam stock reduction

12 oz white clams (about 12 clams)

Lots and lots of hot, steamed white rice

Directions:

Remove the shells from the shrimp and place in a skillet or pot.  Add a teaspoon of seasoning salt. Cover with water and simmer at medium heat for about 15 minutes.  Strain the liquid and reserve.  Discard the shrimp shells.  Heat the liquid in the pan until it reduces by at least half.  Reserve the reduction.

Put the chicken in a pot and cover with water.  Boil at low heat until cooked (about 40 minutes).  Remove the chicken to a platter and cool to room temperature.

In a small bowl, add the thyme and bay leaves. Cover with water and steam in a microwave for about a minute. Leave the herbs in the water and set aside.

Prep the vegetables and set aside.

Heat a large Dutch oven over medium heat.  (I used a 12” deep Dutch oven).  Add 1 cup oil and 1 cup flour and stir to incorporate.  Reduce heat to low/medium.  Add remaining oil and stir.  Add the remaining flour and stir constantly. 

After about 15 minutes the roux will begin to change from pale yellow to blonde.  Turn the heat to low and keep stirring. 

The roux will continue to darken and will become light tan and then dark tan.  Once the roux has turned to tan pay extra attention to the aroma and color of the roux as you stir. 

The color of the roux will begin to take on reddish/brown hue soon.  This is where I usually turn off the heat but, if you are brave and careful, keep stirring until the roux becomes chocolate brown. 

Once you are finished with the roux, turn off the heat and continue stirring for several more minutes.  The roux will remain very hot for at least 30 minutes.  Set the roux aside for now.

I stopped just short of mahogany on my second roux…yes, I chickened out!

And now, the easy part!

In a very, very large Dutch oven, (I used a 14” deep Dutch oven), add the chopped onion.  Sauté until the onion begins to turn brown. 

Add the bell pepper, celery and jalapeño.  Stir for a minute and add the garlic.  Stir for a few minutes and then remove everything to a bowl.

Add the sliced Andouille to the pot.  Stir over medium/high heat to brown the Andouille.  Remove the Andouille and set aside.

Add the chicken stock and vegetable stock to the pot and cook over high heat for 2 minutes.  Return the onions and Andouille to the pot.  Add the water from the steamed thyme and bay leaves. Discard the bay leaves and add the thyme to the pot. Turn the heat down to medium. 

Add about half of the roux to the pot and stir, to mix.  

Add the okra and stir.

Add the rest of the roux and stir.  The roux will thicken quickly.  If it is too thick, as mine was, add some water.  I added 3 cups of water.  Continue stirring.

Add the crawfish meat.  Stir briefly and turn the heat to low/medium.

Add the parsley and stir.

In a large skillet,  add two cups of water.  Set the heat to high and cover.  When the water reaches a hard boil, add the white clams, turn off the heat and cover.  The clams will snap open quickly.  Steam the clams for about a minute and remove to a bowl.  If some of the clams have not opened, bring the water back to boil and add the unopened clams.  If they pop open, hooray!  If they don’t open, they are doomed and will need to join the burned roux, in the trash can.  (All of my clams opened – Yippee!)

Reduce the steaming liquid from the clams to about one third.  You should wind up with a milky white reduction.  Strain the liquid through a paper towel and sieve to remove any sandy grit. Add the reduction to the gumbo pot.

Pull the clams from the shells and add the clams to the gumbo.  Discard the shells.

Add the chicken to the gumbo and stir.

Add the crab and stir.

Add the shrimp and green onions to the gumbo and stir.  The shrimp will cook within a couple of minutes.

Give the gumbo a good final stir.

Serve in bowls, over warm white rice.

So, other than a few 2nd degree burns and a failed roux, everything went according to plan!

Gumbo (Part I)

The best bowl of gumbo I ever had was my first one.  That’s the way it goes with me, more often than not.  My first experience with anything that’s new and wonderful finds a special and permanent home in my heart.  My first gumbo experience was at a seafood restaurant in north Texas…far, far away from the gulf coast, where seafood reigns supreme.  I sat alone, outside, at a picnic table on a wooden deck, on a chilly, rainy autumn evening  and I watched the cars as they sped down the wet street.  That bowl of gumbo warmed my bones and lifted my soul.  The aroma, steaming upward from the bowl, was a magical mixture of earthiness and briny sea. The flavor was complex and deep,  yet comfortable like my favorite winter coat.

Gumbo is truly American, like Jazz, which is to say that it is the marriage of many cultures from around the world.  Gumbo is influenced by African, French, Spanish, German and native American cuisines. Gumbo represents what America aspires to be.  Find a seat and share your story with us.  Everyone is welcome here.

 

Mini Meat Loaf Dinner

I’m still adjusting to cooking for two or three people instead of four, or more.  It seems like it would be simple enough to divide a recipe in half but, when it comes right down to it, my brain still tells me to keep cooking on a larger scale.  Some dishes lend themselves well to leftovers while some others don’t.  Leftovers are great for lunches the next day but after a few days of cooking too much food, the refrigerator tends to become packed with lots of little storage containers.  I find myself going through the refrigerator every weekend and tossing uneaten leftovers. 

This meatloaf would be perfect for leftovers, if I had made the full recipe.  A meatloaf sandwich, with some potato chips and applesauce might make a nice lunch.

So, here is the modest meat loaf…one that can be shared by two or three people.

Ingredients:

1.25 lbs ground chuck (80/20)

1 egg

1 cup rolled oats

1 tsp Cajun seasoning

1 tsp onion powder

1 tsp paprika

½ tsp garlic powder

½ tsp salt

½ tsp dried oregano

3 Tbs ketchup

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

For the potatoes and green beans:

5 small russet potatoes

2 cups cooking oil

½ lb fresh green beans

1 garlic clove, smashed

1 Tbs honey

1 Tbs butter

¼ cup water

Directions:

Wash and dry the potatoes.  Cut the potatoes into large, one inch pieces.  Add 2 cups of oil to a large skillet and set the heat to low.  Add the potatoes and let them fry for about 45 minutes.  Frying at a low temperature results in crispy potatoes with creamy interiors. 

Combine the Cajun seasoning,  onion powder, paprika, garlic powder, salt and oregano in a small bowl and mix.

In a large mixing bowl, add the ground beef.  Add the oats and egg.  Mix to combine.

Add the spices, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce.  Mix thoroughly. 

Put the meat mixture in a 9” x 5” non-stick loaf pan.  Cook uncovered in a 325° oven for 45 minutes.

While the meat loaf and potatoes cook, wash the green beans and snip off the ends.  Set aside until the potatoes are done.

Once the potatoes are cooked, drain in a strainer and reserve the oil for another day.  Keep the potatoes in a warm area until ready to serve.

Put the green beans in the skillet and return to the stove.  Set the temperature at medium low and toss the green beans for a few minutes. 

Add the garlic, honey and butter and stir.  Add the water and simmer, covered for 15 minutes. 

While the green beans steam, remove the meat loaf from the oven and place on a serving dish.  Keep warm.

When the green beans have softened and are cooked to your liking, arrange them on the plate with the meat loaf. 

The amount of Cajun seasoning in this recipe shouldn’t be over-powering.  If you want to add some kick, make a side dish of ketchup and hot sauce (2 parts ketchup to 1 part hot sauce).