Childhood nostalgia seasons shrimp creole

Shrimp creole / Getty Images

Tradition is often defined as how it was done when you were a child. Lifelong behavior patterns form at a very early age, and we do tend to hold onto things, both good and bad, from our childhoods.

(READ MORE: Traditions they left behind)

Regardless of when and how they begin, never have they seemed more important than now as I age and look back on six decades of life.

One of my food memories, which began when I was about 10, is helping my mother make shrimp creole. I can still see her turning the pages of one of her favorite cookbooks, "Charleston Receipts," a Junior League of Charleston (South Carolina) cookbook published sometime in the 1950s that became a classic by the 1960s and occupied a premiere space on the bookshelves of many a Southern kitchen.

Of all the recipes, it was the top of page 68 that stood out: Brewton Inn Creole Shrimp, a simple concoction of canned tomatoes and boiled shrimp. Back then I'd never heard of creole anything. At the time, Chattanooga was not known for its culinary diversity.

(READ MORE: With Succotash restaurant, chef brings Creole, Cajun flavors to Marion County)

As early as 10 years old, my mother was teaching me that the key to success with any dish, but especially a simple one, lay in the quality of the ingredients. In the case of shrimp creole, that meant the shrimp and tomatoes had to be good. No canned shrimp, but back in the day, the only good shrimp to be found was in the frozen food section of the A&P. In the summer, though, we'd bring shrimp back from the beach packed in big coolers with lots of ice.

As soon as we got home, we'd cook a batch, a sort of last hurrah of our vacation. The rest were packed, still in their shells, in water to cover and frozen so we could have a little taste of summer all winter long.

Summer tomatoes from my dad's garden were used during the height of the season.

Fast-forward a few decades, and shrimp creole continues to be one of my favorite shrimp dishes. It's now possible to get good shrimp in stores, much better than what the old A&P offered. And honestly, a good brand of canned tomatoes, such as Cento San Marzano, taste nearly as good as summer's fresh tomatoes.

The seasonings in that recipe from "Charleston Receipts" were spare. Of course it called for the creole holy trinity of celery, onion and peppers, but the only other seasonings were salt, pepper and a teaspoon of sugar. No garlic, herbs or cayenne pepper.

I appreciate the simplicity of that recipe, though now I add cayenne, garlic, bay leaf, Worcestershire and a smidgen of thyme. You can use another fat other than bacon drippings, but I've never used anything else. This recipe makes enough for two to three people but is easily doubled for a larger group.

Shrimp Creole

1 1/2 to 2 pounds ripe tomatoes or 1 can chopped tomatoes

1 1/2 tablespoons bacon drippings

1 medium yellow onion, diced small

1 large rib celery, diced small

1/2 medium green bell pepper, diced small

1 large clove garlic, lightly crushed and minced

1 teaspoon crumbled dried thyme

1 large bay leaf

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Ground cayenne pepper

Worcestershire sauce

Sugar, if needed

2 pounds large shrimp, peeled

2 cups hot cooked rice

2 green onions, washed, trimmed, and thinly sliced

If using fresh tomatoes: Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, cut an X in the bottoms of the tomatoes and put them in a heatproof bowl. Completely cover them with boiling water, and let them stand 1 to 2 minutes. Meanwhile, set a sieve over a bowl. Drain the tomatoes, then, working over the sieve, cut out the stem end and peel them, dropping the peels and stem ends into the sieve as you go. Cut them in half crosswise (lengthwise if they're plum tomatoes) and, still working over the sieve, core and remove the seeds. Chop the tomato pulp, and add it to their collected juices in the bowl. You'll need 2 to 2 1/2 cups depending on how much sauce you like.

If using canned tomatoes: Make sure you have about 2 cups of tomatoes. Do not drain.

Warm the bacon drippings in a deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. As soon as it starts melting, add the onions, celery and green pepper, and sauté, stirring often, until the onion is translucent and barely beginning to color. Add the garlic, and sauté until fragrant, 15-20 seconds.

Add the tomatoes with their juices, thyme, bay leaf and tomato paste. Season well with salt, black pepper, cayenne and a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce, stir, and bring it to a simmer. Reduce the heat to maintain a slow, steady simmer, loosely cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes.

Uncover, taste and adjust the seasonings, and if the tomatoes were not very sweet to begin with, add a teaspoon or so of sugar, as needed. Continue cooking, uncovered, until the vegetables are very tender, the tomatoes are collapsed and falling apart, and the liquid is reduced and thickened, 40-45 minutes longer.

Add the shrimp, and simmer until they're just curled and pink, turning them over once or twice, 3-5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings, and let it warm for half a minute or so to let the flavors meld. Serve the creole spooned over rice and garnished with green onions.


VALENTINE PREP

Reservations are now being accepted so you can treat your valentine to a delicious three-course Frothy Love Dinner on Feb. 13-14 at Frothy Monkey.

The first course is a cheese plate to share or salads for each of you. Next come braised beef short ribs over mashed potatoes with buttery green beans or grilled mahi-mahi with herbed polenta, spinach and sun-dried tomato pesto. For the third course you'll share a big piece of flourless chocolate cake crowned with passion fruit mousse, passion fruit sauce and chocolate sauce.

Dinners are $65 per couple. For another $30, you can add a bottle of wine.

Reservations may be made at frothymonkey.com/frothy-love-dinners or by calling 423-680-6343. Frothy Monkey is inside the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, 1400 Market St.

Other restaurants planning Valentine's Day specials should submit the information to the email below for special coverage.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com or annebraly.com.