Charleston-Style Shrimp Creole
My ancestors, for several generations, lived in Charleston and other parts of South Carolina's Lowcountry, as well as nearby Savannah, Georgia. The cooks in the family followed the traditions of Lowcountry cuisine and Charleston cuisine, which were established by those who settled and lived in the area: Native Americans, wealthy British landowners, Huguenots from France, settlers from the Caribbean, and slaves from West Africa.
The newcomers brought with them their own cooking methods, foods, and spices, and because Charleston was an important port, many spices and other foreign goods were made available to her residents. The spices and cooking methods were adapted to local foods such as tomatoes, corn, peppers, greens, okra, sweet potatoes, shrimp, crabs, fishes, pork, chicken, and wild game.
Perhaps the most important food staple of all was locally grown rice, which was produced on large plantations. My great-grandmother cooked rice three times a day, to be served with every meal. Sometimes the rice was mixed with other foods, sometimes it was served as a side dish, sometimes it was made into a dessert, and sometimes another dish was served over the rice. Such is the case with shrimp creole.
Leftover Boiled Shrimp
Do you ever have leftover boiled shrimp? Do you find yourself wondering about how to put them to good use? Using them in a good shrimp creole recipe is a tasty decision! We had a big shrimp boil on Christmas Eve, and I put about two pounds of the cooked shrimp in the freezer. I froze them with the shells on, which helps protect the delicate flesh. After thawing them, I peeled and deveined them, so they'd be ready to add to my tomato base. My shrimp were already flavorful because I boiled them in a brew of water, salt, beer, vinegar, lemon juice, and lots of spices and herbs.
I like my shrimp creole to be brimming with shrimp. I've had the dish in some restaurants that were very stingy with the shrimp, and those versions weren't nearly as good as mine. I like for there to be just enough of the tomato base to cling to each shrimp. In other words, I think the shrimp should be the star of any shrimp creole. That being said, you don't have to use an exact amount of shrimp. You might prefer more sauce and fewer shrimp.
I know what you're thinking: Hey, that's a New Orleans dish! Indeed, it is, but it's also a popular dish in Charleston. In fact, with a little research, you'll discover that many Lowcountry or Charleston dishes are very similar to those associated with New Orleans, although they might be called by a different name.
When you think about it, this food fact shouldn't be surprising. Both cities were heavily influenced by basically the same ethnic groups, and the main ingredients for shrimp creole were locally produced in both regions.
In general, Charleston shrimp creole is a little sweeter than its New Orleans cousin. Another slight variation I've noticed is that Charlestonians sometimes add a little curry powder to their shrimp creole. The same goes for okra. If you don't like the taste of curry or of okra, you can omit them from the recipe. By the way, I often omit celery from my recipe because my husband doesn't like it. Leaving it out doesn't diminish the rich flavor of this dish.
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- 4 slices thick bacon, chopped
- 1 small to medium yellow onion, chopped
- 1 green bell pepper, diced
- 1/3 cup celery, finely diced
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 2 cans (15 ounces each) crushed tomatoes
- 2 cans (14.5 ounces each) diced tomatoes, with liquid
- 1 can (14.5 ounces) sliced okra, drained
- 1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 1-2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon curry powder
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 pound boiled, peeled, deveined shrimp, tails removed
- salt and pepper, to taste
- In a Dutch oven or stock pot, sauté bacon, onion, bell pepper, and celery until bacon is cooked and veggies are soft. Drain off all but one tablespoon bacon fat.
- Add garlic and continue cooking for 1 minute.
- Add tomatoes, okra, red pepper, sugar, vinegar, Tabasco sauce, curry powder, and the bay leaves.
- Cover and simmer mixture for 40 minutes, stirring often. Remove bay leaves.
- Add shrimp and cook for an additional 15 minutes.
- Add salt and pepper, to taste.
- For a thicker mixture, simmer without lid until desired consistency is reached.
- Serve over rice.