Small, Good Things: Via Chicago

By Joe Dizney

“So, a guy walks into a restaurant…” — or, at least, that’s the way this story goes.

Sometime in the 1950s, Vincent Sutro, a regular at Pascal’s Manale Italian eatery in New Orleans, returned from a Chicago business trip. He waxed romantic to the chef, Jake Radosta, about a shrimp dish he had eaten there — something with shrimp and a lot of butter and pepper — and asked Jake if he could recreate it.

The dish Radosta came up with became the cornerstone of Pascale’s Manale culinary reputation and created yet another tributary off the Mississippi-wide river of New Orleans and Louisiana foodways.

It also offers evidence that a large part of what we accept as cultural (or in this case, culinary) evolution is more like a glorified game of telephone: a mash-up of sense-memory, miscommunication, interpretation and adaptation.

Hence “shrimp and a lot of butter and pepper” became flash-cooked whole fresh shrimp in a buttery sauce seasoned with yes, lots of pepper, but also garlic, Worcestershire sauce, white wine and a ubiquitous New Orleans Italian-Creole spice blend. The spicy mess is traditionally served with crusty French bread to soak up every last drop of the toothsome, savory sauce.

New Orleans-Hudson Valley “Barbecue” Shrimp (Photo by J. Dizney)

But, as they say, “you can’t step into the same river twice,” and Manale’s original spawned a slew of imitators — or, if you prefer, interpreters. Fittingly, in the gumbo-rich culture of New Orleans, there is no “best” way to cook the dish: some use white wine, some beer; some add tomatoes; others, cream (sacre bleu!); fresh herbs duke it out with dried; and in the usual Crescent City showdown, it’s “Tabasco versus Crystal” hot sauce.

The most contentious differences are schools of thought that mix all the ingredients together in a baking dish and fire it in the oven (Pascal’s Manale) versus stovetop-cooking in a cast-iron skillet (Paul Prudhomme). There is also a major schism between cooked-and-served-heads-and-shells-on traditionalists (messy but communal) versus peeled-cooked-and-plated upstarts (un peu nouvelle, but easier cleanup).

The version offered here is an adaptation of James Beard award-winning chef Frank Brigtsen (who was mentored by Prudhomme) and whose eponymous five-bean-rated restaurant (in New Orleans, it’s beans instead of stars) suggests a stovetop version, with peeled shrimp (shells and heads providing a rich stock for the sauce), garlic, dark beer, Worcestershire and mostly dried herbs livened with fresh rosemary and — by necessity — lots of butter.

The original calls for Louisiana Gulf shrimp which can be a tad difficult to find in the Highlands, so the punchline to this New-Orleans-by-way-of-the-Hudson-River-Valley version is indoor-farmed-raised Pacific White (whiteleg) shrimp from Newburgh’s ECO Shrimp Garden (ecoshrimpgarden.com). Marbled Meat Shop on Route 9 distributes the shrimp locally, and it is also available from the source (99 S. William St.) Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from noon to 4 p.m.

Whereas Brigtsen’s recipe calls for Prudhomme’s Seafood Magic spice blend, I’ve included an additional recipe for the required New Orleans Italian-Creole blend.

If using the commercial product, add it in the same 2 tablespoon measure. Just don’t forget the bread and napkins.

New Orleans-Hudson Valley “Barbecue” Shrimp

 Serves four as an appetizer, or two as an entree

1 pound large (12 count) head-on ECO Shrimp
¼ cup shrimp stock (made from the shrimp heads and shells)
3 tablespoons plus 4 additional tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons Italian-Creole spice blend (see below)
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup dark beer
Salt to taste
(Optional: a dash of Tabasco (or Crystal) hot sauce or squeeze of fresh lemon juice)
Hot French bread or some other crusty white loaf to tear for serving

Peel shrimp, saving the heads and shells for stock. Set peeled tails aside.

To make the stock, place the shrimp heads and shells in a small pot and add just enough cold water to cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Strain and set aside.

Heat a heavy skillet over high heat for 1 – 2 minutes. Add 3 tablespoons of the butter, rosemary, shrimp stock and peeled shrimp. Cook, shaking the skillet vigorously with a push/pull motion until the shrimp are just barely pink.

Add the seasoning mix and garlic; cook, still shaking the skillet, for 10 seconds. Add Worcestershire and beer or wine; cook another 15 to 20 seconds.

Add remaining 4 tablespoons of butter and reduce heat to low. Shake skillet vigorously back and forth until the butter melts and emulsifies into the sauce. (Add optional hot sauce or lemon juice here and stir to incorporate.) Serve immediately in shallow bowls with lots of hot crusty bread for soaking up the sauce.

Italian-Creole Spice Blend

4 tablespoons ground black pepper (or half-and-half black and white)
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 (light) teaspoon cayenne pepper

Mix all ingredients and grind roughly in a mortar and pestle to a mildly coarse texture. Store in an airtight container up to 6 months.

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