Summoning the past

January 17, 2015

Back in the dark ages (the 80s and, I think, on into the early 90s), when I was running a newspaper in West Memphis, there was a cafeteria a block from the office. We used to walk over there fairly regularly after we got the paper out to eat lunch.

Happy little shrimps, swimming around in Creole sauce.

Happy little shrimps, swimming around in Creole sauce.

It was your basic old-fashioned cafeteria, the kind you don’t see too often any more. You slide your tray down the line, picking your dishes a la carte, selecting a slice of pie with meringue half a foot high. Getting your tea from the big stainless urn. Stopping at the cashier to get your tab added and pay for your lunch, and then grabbing your silverware rolled up in a big cloth napkin, and heading for a table.

My husband loved it because he could get liver and onions, which I would NOT cook at home (and still don’t). I loved it because I could pick any of a variety of Southern style veggies, and even throw in a congealed salad or two. On a limp lettuce leaf, yet.

And on Fridays, I could get shrimp Creole.

I’m convinced that, half a century after Vatican II, every restaurant in the South that has a daily changeable section in its menu does some kind of seafood on Fridays. There are catfish restaurants that build their entire business base around the Friday night seafood buffet. Buffets everywhere add cold shrimp and crab legs to the offerings on Friday. Catholics may be in a minority in the rural South, but by George, we treat ’em well.

Wonder City treated them exceptionally well. On Fridays you could get baked fish, fried fish, fried shrimp and shrimp creole. And I dearly loved their shrimp creole.

I got to thinking about that shrimp creole recently, in large part because I had several pounds of frozen shrimp in the freezer. I looked at assorted recipes for it, and thought long and hard to conjure up the memory of the faintly sweet taste the Creole sauce at Wonder City had. And I set out to try it.

I started out sauteeing some trinity — onions, celery and bell pepper. I knew Wonder City had all those in its sauce, because I would pick out the celery and bell pepper and push them to the side of the bowl. So I gritted my teeth and, despite my loathing for bell peppers, got a yellow one on the grounds it was closer to ripe than green, and put half of it in. I diced up a small onion and a couple of ribs of celery, and set all that to saute in a tablespoon of olive oil in my Dutch oven.

When those got all soft, I added half a tiny can of tomato paste, and let THAT get nice and fragrant, and then I added a quart of my home-canned tomatoes. (As an aside, I canned about 2 1/2 bushes of tomatoes last summer in various forms, and I don’t think it’s gonna be enough. I’m almost out of marinara and chili base already, and my stash of plain canned tomatoes is getting low. Must up my game this summer.) Because I like a smooth sauce, I took my stick blender to it (once again contemplating the fact it is the best $20 tool I ever bought for my kitchen). I added some Cajun seasoning and about a teaspoon of sugar, and set it to simmering.

Tasted 45 minutes or so later. Too damn much bell pepper, and no way to fix that. A little salty, due to the preponderance of salt in the Cajun seasoning. Added some more sugar. Simmered a while longer. The bell pepper toned down (still more taste of it than I’d prefer, and I’ll leave that stuff out next time), and the sweetness level was about right. Still saltier than I prefer, but not badly so. Added some powdered pico de gallo seasoning because it didn’t have enough kick. Upon reflection, it would probably have been better served by several liberal shakes of Pick-A-Peppa sauce.

I peeled a pound of shrimp and tossed them in to poach, and cooked some rice, and served it up. And while it didn’t completely recreate the old favorite dish from Wonder City, I think with a little tweaking I can get pretty doggoned close.

When I get it the way I want it, I’ll put a full recipe out there for you ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em. Meanwhile, you can take the description above and run with it.

For pies with half-a-foot-tall meringues, you’re on your own.



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