Étouffée, like gumbo, is one of the defining dishes of Cajun and Creole cuisine. It is steeped in tradition and held in reverence for its depth of decadent deliciousness. But just like gumbo, there are numerous interpretations of étouffée that sometimes confound and confuse aficionados of this multi-faceted genre of cooking. Truth is, if the dish is made by the hands of a South Louisiana cook, and the ingredients are locally sourced, they’re mostly all good.
Recently I ran across a version of the dish—crab étouffée—that has me hungry for more. My friend and neighbor Walter Hidalgo who owns local café and watering hole POUR invited me to help him cook up a time-honored family recipe. From down south of Lafayette in the town of Erath, Walter and his wife Danielle both grew up with Cajun roots dug deep in the rich soil of Acadiana. Walter’s grandmother Aline Desormeaux Doré (affectionately known as “Momom”) was known far and wide as a cook that stirred up an appetite for anyone who sat at her kitchen table.
And as we cooked together, Walter stirred up memories of those remarkable meals. Seems Momom cooked from memory (nothing was written down) and over the years she shared those secrets with Walter. His crab étouffée always starts with live blue crabs from the Vermilion Bay waters just off the coast of Intracoastal City. He keeps them chilled on ice (or refrigerated) until they go into a deep slumber. Walter cleans them live and tosses them into a white hot Magnalite sizzling with a bit of oil. This first browning of the ultra-fresh, fat crabs is when the rich, briny juices leech out into the pot. Adding a double-handful of aromatics (onion and green bell pepper only) begins the layering of flavors that define this dish. Walter removes the crab pieces to let cool, and after a dusting of flour, he adds them back to the pot to create a light roux. Water (not stock) is added to create a sauce, and with a generous sprinkle of cayenne, the magic unfolds in the bottom of the pot.
In Walter’s version (and to appease his three children), he adds more jumbo lumps of crabmeat along with fresh Gulf shrimp at the last stage of cooking. He serves it up over a mound of white rice and a sprinkling of green onion tops. One bite and I was hooked. There’s lots going on in this dish, but the essential ingredient is fresh Gulf blue crabs–full of fat and flavor–that develop a sopping-good sauce.
There’s more to étouffée than crawfish. Try this version, and you’ll be a convert, too.
Thank you, Walter!
- 1 dozen fat blue crabs, cleaned and halved
- ½ cup canola oil
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 cups diced yellow onion
- 2 cups diced green bell pepper
- ½ tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 1 quart water
- 1 pound jumbo lump blue crabmeat
- 1 pound jumbo (16/20 count) shrimp, peeled and deveined (optional)
- 4 cups cooked long-grain white rice, such as Supreme
- ½ cup diced green onion tops, for serving
- In a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add the oil. Once the oil is hot, add the crabs and sauté them in batches until they begin to brown and change color from blue to red. Remove the crabs and let cool.
- Dust the crabs lightly with flour and return them to the pot along with the onion and bell pepper. Cook the crabs on all sides as the flour begins to brown and form a light beige-colored roux. Once the raw taste of the flour has fully cooked out, add the water.
- Season the mixture with cayenne and lower the heat to a simmer. Let cook for another 20 minutes or until the sauce thickens to a stew-like consistency.
- Add the jumbo lump crabmeat and shrimp about 5 to 8 minutes before serving.
- To serve, in large bowls ladle the steaming hot étouffée over a mound of white rice and top with pieces of crab. Garnish with a sprinkle of diced green onion tops. Serve with hot French bread, ice-cold beer, and plenty of napkins.
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