Small, Good Things: Home Cooking

By Joe Dizney

Eating is typically a mundane activity — in both senses of the word. “Three squares” can get mechanical and is definitely “of the world” (mundo) and body. Eating for sustenance is certainly a legitimate take on the process, but it does neglect a huge sphere of human experience, history and spirit.

Recently I was called on to serve in a support capacity for probably my oldest friend. We grew up together in a small town in southern Louisiana and were later part of the diaspora of the 1960s. Dutch made a life in Seattle while performing charitable works in Afghanistan, Somalia and, most recently, Ghana, where he and his wife administer a charity (yekoanim.org) in a village called Kwahu Tafo. I somehow ended up in Cold Spring.

During a December vacation in the U.K., Dutch fell ill. Fortunately, he happened to be near the Royal Victoria hospital in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, home to a world-class department of infectious disease and tropical medicine. The doctors saved him from a horrific case of malaria.

By the time I was called to duty in late January, Dutch was out of the woods but still in the hospital, facing multiple surgeries. He had lost 40 pounds and the immediate objective was to build his strength.

I took on the assignment as his personal chef. When Dutch was asked what he most wanted, I was not surprised by his request for Shrimp Étouffée, a comfort food and language we share.

Shrimp Étouffée (Photo by J. Dizney)

When referring to a cooking method, étouffée means “smothered.” What it describes in practice is a stovetop shellfish braise. It is a staple in southwest Louisiana and New Orleans Cajun and French Creole cuisine. The braising liquid is a flour roux-based sauce seasoned with the trinity of Cajun ingredients — onion, celery and bell pepper — plus some de rigueur garlic and spices (thyme, oregano, cayenne). The difference between the Cajun and Creole versions is tomatoes.

Crawfish (or crayfish in the heathen North) is the most popular version of the dish, though shrimp runs a close second due to its availability. (Crab Étouffée is also a “thing,” though less common.) All are served over rice with a garnish of green onions.

Even in Newcastle the ingredients were readily available, although I was handicapped by the prehensile hospital kitchen, pots and cutlery. I know for a fact this was the first roux I ever prepared on an induction stovetop. (And I strongly suggest you take the time and trouble to make the shrimp stock described in the recipe note.)

Regardless, I believe I can say this was the most genuine if not the best shrimp étouffée ever produced in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, and judging from the reception in Ward 19 of the Royal Victoria Infirmary, it was the most appreciated. We moved on from here to oyster po-boys, braised lamb shanks with polenta and short ribs with risotto Milanese. Eating can be anything but mundane and home is where the hearth — and heart — is.

Shrimp Étouffée

Serves 6

1½-to-2 dozen shrimp, peeled (reserve the heads and shells for stock*)
¼ pound butter
1 cup diced onion
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 cup diced celery
½ cup diced green bell pepper
½ cup diced red bell pepper
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon Cajun or Italian seasoning
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 cups seafood stock (packaged clam broth will do; see Note* to make your own)
1 14-ounce can cherry tomatoes in sauce
1½ cup long grain rice (Jasmine or Jasmati are nice) prepared as per package directions
1 cup sliced green onion plus a bit more for garnish
½ cup chopped flat leaf parsley

  1. In a large 3- or 4-quart saucepan, heat butter over medium-high heat. Sauté onions until translucent; add garlic and sauté another 2 minutes. Add ½ each of the celery, green and red bell peppers, seasoning and bay leaves and sauté until vegetables are just cooked.
  2. Reduce heat slightly and sprinkle flour over the vegetables, stirring to cook for 2-3 minutes. Slowly begin to add the stock a bit at a time, stirring and scraping the bottom stock to achieve the consistency of smooth, thick sauce.
  3. Add tomato paste and tomatoes and bring to a low boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes adding more stock as necessary to keep the sauce from getting too thick. (In the meantime begin your rice.)
  4. Add shrimp and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in green onions and parsley. Remove from heat and cover. Serve étouffée hot over rice, garnished with more green onions.

*Note: In a large saucepan, heat ¼ cup olive oil over medium high. Sauté a handful of chopped onion, a couple of tablespoons of garlic and ¼ cup diced celery until soft. Add reserved shrimp shells and heads if you have them; sauté for 5 to 8 minutes until pink and slightly opaque all the way through. Add 4 cups vegetable stock, clam broth or water and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain stock and use as per recipe.

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