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Legendary Recipe From a Legendary Restaurant
Treebeards is a legendary restaurant in Houston. What started in 1978 as a small lunch café serving downtown workers has grown into a five-location favorite with an almost fanatical, cult-like following.
It's no wonder the restaurant has found so much success. The menu features Cajun, Creole and Southern home-cooking favorites such as gumbo, boudin, fried chicken and red beans and rice, all made from scratch daily. The combination of the restaurant's downtown location, delicious food, casual atmosphere and fair prices proved so successful that within two years, the owners saw the necessity of moving to a larger location, which they found in downtown Houston's second-oldest building, the circa 1861 Baker-Meyer Building. Treebeards still occupies this location today.
Not long after moving to the larger location, the restaurant opened a second location within the Cloisters of downtown Houston's historic Christ Church Cathedral, which was founded in 1839 and is the oldest church in Houston that is still holding services in its original location. Three more locations were added over the years, also serving Houston's sprawling downtown, which is densely populated with workers each weekday.
Despite the restaurants' terrific success, original owners Dan Tidwell and Jamie Mize never sold out to a corporate chain. After more than 30 years of operation, when they decided to sell their small dynasty, they chose a pair of long-time Treebeards managers to become the new owners, enabling this beloved institution to remain locally owned by two Houston restaurateurs rather than by an impersonal corporate conglomerate.
Having lived in Houston during the late 1980s and early '90s, it was my pleasure to dine at Treebeards many times. I was very pleased when Tidwell allowed the Houston Chronicle to reproduce his restaurant's recipe for shrimp etouffee in their food section. My husband and I clipped the recipe from the paper immediately—yes, we cut the actual newspaper with actual scissors, as this was so long ago the internet did not yet exist.
We have made this shrimp etouffe many times over the years, and whether we serve it on a chilly New Year's Eve, snowy Super Bowl Sunday or during a summer crawfish boil, it is always a hit. Buttery, oniony, salty, just a bit spicy and filled with shrimp, this etouffee is rich and wonderful, yet at the same time deliciously light. I am so grateful that Mr. Tidwell shared his recipe with the public, and I feel extremely fortunate to have somehow managed to hang onto the small slip of yellowing newspaper we clipped from the newspaper so many years ago.
You and yours are sure to enjoy this very special recipe, as well.
For the etouffee:
- 3/4 pound butter, (3 sticks)
- 3 1/4 cups white onion, chopped
- 1 1/2 cups bell pepper, chopped
- 4 cups celery, chopped
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
- 1 teaspoon each: black pepper, garlic powder and thyme
- 3 3/4 cups shrimp broth
- 1/4 teaspoon liquid crab boil
- 1 teaspoon Cajun red hot pepper sauce (Tabasco, Louisiana or other brand)
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 cup flour
- 3 cups green onions, chopped
- 1/2 cup parsley, chopped
- 1 1/4 to 2 1/2 pounds Treebeards shrimp (see below)
- 4 cups hot cooked rice, for serving
For the Treebeards shrimp:
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 1/4 to 2 1/2 pounds raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 2 pinches each: garlic powder and salt
- 1 pinch each: ground red pepper and ground blak pepper
- 2 tablespoons green onion tips, chopped
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce, such as Thai nam pla
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- First, prepare the Treebeards shrimp using the ingredients listed above under the "Treebeards shrimp" heading. Step one of this portion of the recipe is to heat the vegetable oil in a pot or large skillet over medium heat.
- Add all other Treebeards shrimp ingredients: raw shrimp, garlic powder, salt, red and black pepper, chopped green onion, fish sauce and tomato paste.
- Cook shrimp mixture over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp turns pink.
- Drain oil from shrimp and set aside.
- Now it's time to start preparing the etouffee itself. This portion of the recipe uses the ingredients under the "etouffee" heading. The first step of this part of the recipe is to melt the butter in a large pot.
- Add chopped white onion, bell pepper and celery to the metled butter. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables are soft, about 45 minutes. Stir regullarly so that the vegetables do not burn. As stovetops vary, you may need to turn your burner heat to low in order to prevent burning.
- In a small bowl, combine the salt, red and black pepper, garlic powder, thyme, shrimp broth, liquid crab boil, hot sauce and Worcestersire sauce. Set aside.
- Once the vegetables have become quite soft, stir in the flour and cook 1-2 minutes to thicken the mixture.
- Add the chopped green onion and chopped parlsey to the pot, as well as the spices/sauces mixture that you set aside earlier. Allow mixture to simmer about 5 minutes.
- Just before serving, add the prepared Treebeards shrimp to the pot and heat until the shrimp and all ingedients are heated through.
- Serve over rice with Cajun hot sauce on the side.
Recipe Notes and Suggestions
This recipe makes about eight servings and allows for a varied amount of shrimp to be used, depending upon the amount of shrimp you have available, your appetite, and how many people you're feeding. One and one-quarter pounds should be sufficient if you are feeding fewer people, light eaters or simply prefer your etouffee to have a heavier concentration of rice and vegetables. Use two pounds or two and one-half pounds of shrimp, or even a bit more, to stretch this recipe to feed an extra diner or two, or two impress your guests with a bowl of etouffée that contains plenty of plump, pink shrimp.
If you don't mind cleaning and peeling crawfish (not my personal cup of tea) or are lucky enough to find some pre-peeled and pre-cleaned crawfish at your grocery store or fish market, you can substitute crawfish for the shrimp in this recipe.
Another option is to add sliced andouille sausage to the shrimp or crawfish, browning it lightly over medium heat before adding it into the etouffee.
Shrimp stock is not easy to find in my neck of the woods, although I was lucky enough to find some Goya powdered shrimp base, which is basically like bouillon cubes in powder form rather than pressed into cubes. If you cannot find shrimp stock or shrimp base at your local grocery store, you can substitute chicken broth or vegetable broth.
This recipe produces a greenish etouffee (the color comes manly from the vegetables), as flour is used to create a quick white roux to thicken the buttery sauce. Gumbo, on the other hand, calls for a dark roux, meaning the roux is cooked for a long period of time, which gives gumbo its deep brown color. If you prefer your etouffee to have a slight reddish or brownish cast, stir the 2 tablespoons of tomato paste directly into the etouffee rather than into the skillet when cooking the shrimp. This ensures more of the red color will make it into your pot, as a good amount of the tomato paste is drained away when you drain the oil from the shrimp.
Etoufee is a meal in itself, but of course everyone loves a side dish. Side dishes that go especially well with étouffée include hot buttered French bread or buttery garlic bread, sautéed collard greens, sautéed zucchini, red beans, black-eyed peas, or just about any type of green salad.
Etouffee is sometimes spelled etouffe, with only one "e" on the end. From what I've been able to find out, spelling it with two Es is correct, because when spelled this way it is the past tense of the French word "etouffer," which means to smother (as in shrimp smothered in a buttery, oniony sauce). In Texas, no matter how it is spelled, we tend to pronounce it "eh-two-fay." Louisianans, who of course know best when it comes to Cajun and Creole pronunciation, usually pronounce the word "ay-two-fay."