a food paradise in southern louisiana…
Last summer, I had the good fortune to spend a few days sampling the food and culture in Southern Louisiana, in a small-ish town about two hours outside of New Orleans called Lafayette. This region of southern Louisiana is called Acadiana, otherwise known as Cajun country. To call Lafayette a foodie haven feels a bit trite; great food is simply a way of life here, woven into the fabric of everyday life. I felt right at home there, and would love to share a couple of stories about this incredible culinary gem, right here in the good ‘ol U S of A!
My gracious hosts were Roxanne and George Graham, whom I had met on a trip to New Orleans. We spent a jam-packed couple of days together, traveling around the countryside visiting farms, food artisans, and local food suppliers. On the day we arrived, George welcomed us with an al fresco lunch: Caesar salad. Far from the standard mix of greens and garlicky dressing, George’s salad was a heady mix of crunchy romaine hearts, homemade smoked oyster vinaigrette, freshly fried shrimp and crawfish, and sweet cherry tomatoes, dusted generously with freshly ground black pepper. I was immediately reminded of why Louisiana is such a special place: George had taken a classic and twisted it deliciously into one of the most incredible lunches I’ve ever experienced.
There was no time for lingering over the salad, however, as we quickly realized that George had an ambitious afternoon planned. We spent the rest of the day gathering ingredients for our dinner: goat cheese from an artisan cheese maker, just-picked produce from a farm stand, fresh shrimp straight from the bayou, and an incredible sampling of meat from a local meat market.
Truthfully, there is so much to share about this trip that I could write a post on each of these stops, as well as several others that are not even mentioned. I promise to share more details in future posts.
One stop stands out from the rest, and to me, really sums up Lafayette, my generous hosts, and the incredible food of Acadaiana. We drove through a tiny town and parked near a concrete dock on the bayou. George jumped out of the car, grabbed a cooler from the back of the vehicle, and escorted us up the stairs of a large concrete dock. The smell of seawater and briny shrimp filled the air, and we were greeted by a man wearing tall waterproof boots. George greeted him warmly, and the two began conferring about the day’s catch. Once a decision was reached, the man with the boots thrust a large metal scoop into the salty water and pulled up a pile of fresh pink shrimp. George opened up the cooler, and the man loaded the shrimp in, filling it to the very top. George replaced the lid, paid the man, and we were on our way to our final few stops.
When we arrived back at the Graham house, slightly weary from the packed schedule, we were greeted by the unmistakable chatter of activity in the kitchen. While we were out, several of their neighbors had let themselves into the house and had begun preparing for dinner by setting out drinks and gathering silverware. We made quick introductions and got straight to work unpacking and sharing our bounty with these new friends. George was the captain of our happy ship, enlisting every available guest in the preparation of dinner, guiding each dish along while Roxanne regaled us with her stories about growing up in this colorful corner of the country.
Barbecue shrimp is a specialty of the Graham house, and George planned to turn those briny, fresh shrimp we picked up at the bayou into a sublime dish for our dinner table. Cajun barbecue shrimp is different from what you might imagine: no grill, and no sticky-sweet barbecue sauce either. Instead, fresh shrimp are slowly braised in a buttery, garlicky sauce, not unlike the Spanish “gambas al ajillo,” but cooked much more slowly, resulting in a sweet, briny, buttery sauce that I was about to rock my world.
Here is a photo I snapped of George while he was making barbecue shrimp. He patiently walked me through the recipe, sharing his tips and tricks and my favorite ratio: one stick of butter per pound of shrimp. We had picked up five pounds of shrimp, so how many sticks of butter did we throw into that pan? You guessed it: five sticks is more that a pound of butter!
When dinner was ready, we all gathered out on the patio to sample the feast before us. Each guest had taken a role in the meal, and the dishes were laid out casually, family-style, among plates, forks, and several rolls of paper towels. This unfussy, down-home way of dining transformed newly-met strangers into friends. As the night progressed, it felt more like family as we shared personal stories, laughed heartily, and enjoyed this beautiful meal that we had worked together to prepare. I was served a small, deep bowl of the barbecue shrimp, the gentle scent of garlic wafting up from the jumbled mess of butter and tentacles. I fished out a giant shrimp, then another, then another until my bowl was quickly empty, save for the buttery sauce left in the bottom. One of the guests handed me a loaf of French bread, toasty on the outside, and instructed me to pull off a hunk to soak up the rich sauce. The pillowy bread was a perfect vessel to dunk into the buttery, briny sauce, and I lapped up every last drop before filling up the bowl to start all over again. When I had finally filled my belly with an embarrassing several-helpings of barbecue shrimp, I made a horrific discovery: this sublime eating experience, possibly mixed with a couple of beers, had prompted me to forget every detail of the barbecue shrimp recipe that George had just shared with me.
Lucky for me, and now for you too, George has shared his recipe for barbecue shrimp on his recently launched blog, Acadiana Table. This incredible collection of stories and recipes will take you on a delicious journey through one of our country’s culinary hubs. The story I’ve shared is just a tip of the iceberg, a quick couple of days jam-packed with incredible food, culture, and friendship. Each week, George shares another story and recipe from his beloved Acadiana, and it’s well worth tuning in to see what he’s up to. I won’t tell you where to find the barbecue shrimp recipe; instead, you’ll have to sift through the posts until you locate it. i’m guessing you’ll get lost in the stories and beautiful photos along the way…just like I did.
Thanks, George and Roxy…I’m fixin’ to come back real soon!