To celebrate Mardi Gras this year, I couldn’t resist pulling My New Orleans off the shelf, and my first thought was to try the crawfish etouffee. Unfortunately, it’s not quite crawfish season yet. Sure, I could have purchased frozen crawfish tale meat, but then I would have no shells for making a shellfish stock which is essential to the dish. I decided to use Gulf shrimp and a couple of small lobster tails. As I started looking over the recipe, it occurred to me that I’ve never heard a good explanation of the difference between etouffee and gumbo. Both start with a roux, both involve the trinity of vegetables and stock, and both are usually served with rice. After some searching, the best explanation I found was that etouffee is almost always made with seafood and usually just one type at a time (clearly I cheated) while gumbo may contain seafood, meat, poultry, or a mix of any or all of the above. The word etouffee means smothered and the word gumbo is derived from an African word for okra, but both are stews. In the book, the crawfish etouffee recipe is regarded as the master recipe in which shrimp or crab can be substituted for the crawfish both in the finished dish and in the stock used to make it.
The first step is to make the shellfish stock which is very easy and requires relatively little simmering time. Browned vegetables, shrimp and lobster shells, and water simmered for about an hour, but I’ve also made shellfish stock in closer to 30 minutes. Once the stock is finished, strained, and ready to be used, the etouffee was started, of course, with a roux. The goal is to cook the roux until it's the color of milk chocolate. Mine was just a little lighter than that, but I really didn’t want it to burn. Then, chopped onion was added and allowed to caramelize before the diced celery, red bell pepper, garlic, thyme, cayenne, extra cayenne in my case, and smoked paprika were added. I thought it was interesting that Besh suggested red bell pepper rather than green. Next, a peeled, seeded, and diced tomato was added with the shellfish stock. The mixture simmered for just seven minutes before sliced green onions and the shrimp and lobster meat were added. Last, butter was added, and it was seasoned with Worcestershire and Tabasco and checked for salt and pepper. When the shrimp were cooked through, it was served with white rice.
Whether etouffee or gumbo or crawfish or shrimp, I really love this style of food and the flavors that develop as it simmers away. In this particular version, I appreciated the hint of smoke from the paprika. This one seemed a little less overly rich than some etouffees I’ve had. It wasn’t too heavy or too thick. The mix of shrimp and lobster was nice, but it was all about the flavor of the stew.