Chef Austin Kirzner added a cup of butter to the sauté pan and used his tongs to stir the quickly melting butter together with chopped shallots, garlic, rosemary and Worcestershire sauce. He lifted the pan off the burner letting gas flames jump an inch into the air. He looked deeply into the sauce and decided, “Just a touch more butter.”
After suffering the punishment of Katrina, New Orleans is back. Tourists have returned to the city for good times, good food and good music. Walking around the city, you hear music everywhere — on the street, in parks, bars and nightclubs. In the French Quarter, restaurants and bars line every block.
Restaurants are crowded with diners enjoying café au lait and beignets heavily dusted with powdered sugar at Café du Monde, fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House Restaurant, hog jowls, charcuterie and ham at pork-centric Cochon, Oceana‘s Cajun gumbo and Jambalaya and fresh seafood at Red Fish Grill.
I’ve always wanted to visit New Orleans. Recently I was able to stay for a long weekend. To help me understand the food scene, Kirzner, executive chef at Red Fish Grill, agreed to give me an overview and a cooking demonstration.
Musicians and cooks
“The first thing to understand about the city,” Kirzner explained — and he should know, he’s a fifth-generation New Orleanian — is “in New Orleans, you’re either a cookor a musician. They’re both held in high esteem like doctors.”
Kirzner tells me that New Orleans cooking takes its influences from around the world and from different parts of the state. In the city you’ll find dishes typical of Louisiana where Cajun cooking predominates. “One pot cooking– red beans, étouffée, gumbos and jambalaya — family-style stuff you’d see in a fish camp or at home.” Every part of the state has its way of making these standards.
What sets New Orleans cuisine apart from the rest of the state is the embrace of its French influence, which he sums up as: “It must have butter. It must have cream. We take it to the extreme.”
There will be heads-on shrimp
The dish he demonstrates is a classic: New Orleans BBQ Shrimp. “You have to understand,” he tells me, “it’s not barbecued. Nobody knows how it came to be called that. Lots of restaurants make a version of the dish. Every one is different.”
Some restaurants serve the dish with the shell on as well as the head and tail. That makes for very messy dining.
For Kirzner, even though some of his customers are put off by the shrimp heads, he insists that’s what gives the sauce its distinctive, sweet richness.
In his version, to make the shrimp more diner-friendly, he leaves on the head and tail but strips the shell off the body.
Surprisingly easy to cook in 5 to 10 minutes, the dish should be prepared just before serving. Letting it sit around won’t do anybody any good.
In the restaurant, he flavors the shrimp with Creole seasoning. To illustrate how New Orleans cooking borrows freely from other cuisines, for the cooking demonstration, he used freshly chopped rosemary.
New Orleans Heads-On BBQ Shrimp
With fish and shellfish coming from the Gulf, New Orleans takes pride in the quality of the seafood served at its restaurants.
If you live in an area with fresh shrimp, definitely use them. Frozen shrimp will be OK, but you owe it to yourself to use heads-on shrimp at least once and that may require a trip to an Asian market where they are readily available.
A very large sauté pan is needed so the shrimp don’t sit on top of one another. That creates the best char and caramelization.
Kirzner’s note: This dish is prepared only two servings at a time because increasing the number of shrimp beyond 12 would require increasing the dish’s amount of sauce. Reducing the larger amount of sauce would require more cooking time, resulting in over-cooked shrimp.
12 to 14 raw colossal shrimp, bodies peeled, with heads and tails left on
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons finely chopped, fresh rosemary (or use the same amount of Creole seasoning)
1 teaspoon fresh garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh shallots, minced
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1½ tablespoons freshly ground coarse black pepper
1 to 3 tablespoons light lager beer, like New Orleans Abita beer (water can be substituted)
½ lemon, seeded
¼ pound butter, cold and unsalted (preferably Plugrá or other European-style butter), cut into ½-inch cubes
1. Season the shrimp with kosher salt. Set aside.
2. In a heavy 10-inch stainless-steel sauté pan on high heat, char the rosemary, garlic and shallots.
3. Add the half-peeled, salted shrimp, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper and 1 tablespoon beer (or water)
4. Squeeze the juice from the lemon over the shrimp.
5. Over high heat, cook the shrimp while gently stirring and occasionally turning the shrimp.
6. After about 2 minutes of cooking, the shrimp should start turning pink on both sides, indicating they are nearly half cooked. If the shrimp are the colossal size, add additional 2 tablespoons beer (or water) to the pan; otherwise, don’t add additional liquid. Remove the shrimp.
7. Reduce the heat to medium-high and continue cooking as you gradually add the cold pieces of butter to the pan.
8. Swirl the butter pieces until they are incorporated into the pan juices, the sauce turns light brown and creamy as it simmers. Add back the shrimp and coat with the sauce, turning frequently until the shrimp are just cooked through. This will take about 2 minutes total if the shrimp are extra-large, and about 3 minutes total if they’re colossal. Do not overcook the shrimp.
9. Remove the shrimp to a serving platter. Pour the sauce over the shrimp and carry to the table.
Serving suggestion: Pour the shrimp and sauce into a heated pasta bowl. Serve the shrimp and sauce immediately either with grits, rice or alongside slices of warm, crusty French bread for sopping up the sauce. Chef Kirzner prefers Leidenheimer French Bread.
Red Fish Grill executive chef Austin Kirzner with a dish of his BBQ Shrimp with cheesy grits. Credit: David Latt