July 5, 2012 by Ray Yanek
I’ve always loved Cajun food—the flavors, the aromas, the way the heat of the cayenne lingers on your lips, the way the gravies and rice sits in your belly and assures you that you’ve been fed.
I love the fact that cooking Cajun takes times, that it’s a process where each new ingredient—added at somewhere near the correct time—adds new layers of flavors. It’s a process that requires friends and music and good times.
I’ve cooked (to various levels of success) etouffees and gumbos, Creoles and jambalayas. I’ve mixed rouxes running the color gamut from blonde to copper penny. But perhaps the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever cooked Cajun style, was also the simplest: the Cajun Shrimp Boil.
If you live in a place where the 4th of July fireworks aren’t happening until the weekend, get yourself a pot, some shrimp, some spice, and some friends and give this a try.
- A big-ass pot and an outdoor burner.
The pot pictured here is an actual boil pot purchased in New Orleans by the father of a friend. It’s a 40 gallon pot. You can, of course, go smaller and use what you have, but make certain the pot can handle the flame of the burner. The heavier the pot, the better. The burner here came from an old turkey deep-frying kit that survived numerous fires and pleas to Sweet Jesus.
- A strainer.
The pot here comes with a strainer that slips into the water. You can get the stuff out of the water in other ways of course, but this is the easiest.
- A big-ass spoon.
Because remember, you have a big-ass pot. If you don’t get an adequate spoon (or boat oar) you’ll be forced to rig up something like my two assistants are holding here. (yes. I said assistants…)
Boil Spice Mixture
There are various styles of boils found around the country, so you’ll find all different types of recommended spices. Old Bay spices are popular and easy to find, but it’s a completely different flavor profile. As mentioned, I prefer the Cajun blends and if you want authentic Cajun taste, go with Zatarain’s. I picked up this bucket in New Orleans’ French Market because it’s tough to find where I live. You could probably order it over the internet though, or even make your own.
- Old newspapers or end-rolls. Enough to cover a table or two.
- Base ingredient of your choice such as shrimp, crawfish, or whole crabs. A mixture would be phenomenal. It’s tough to get crawfish and whole crabs where I live so, as mentioned, we usually go with just the shrimp. When using shrimp, make certain you use shell-on shrimp so that it stands up to the boiling water.
- Small red new potatoes.
- Fresh corn on the cob (this I have no problem finding where I live…) broken in half. Frozen corn also works and adds a few plusses I’ll discuss later.
- Sausage (Andouille if you can get it. If not, go with something smoked).
- Whatever else you think would be good in that pot… we’ve used halved onions, mushrooms, heads of garlic, lemons etc.
- Tally a rough estimate of how much actual food you’ll be cooking and estimate how much water you’ll need in your pot. Be careful not to overfill the pot as it will overflow when you add the food.
- Bring water to a rolling boil. Depending on the amount of water you use, this could take a while. Also, the boil doesn’t need to be hard, as this will cause problems with the timing and also with the soaking at the end.
- When water boils, add the spice mixture to the pot. How much spice you use depends again on the amount of food. Go by the package directions and adjust the seasoning to taste. The Zatarain’s Pro Boil is spicy…
- Add potatoes and cook until softened but not completely done. Approximately 15-20 minutes. Use the time as a guideline only, not a hard rule (in fact, nothing dealing with a boil is a hard rule) and check the potatoes occasionally.
- Add the corn. Cook another 5-10 minutes. We’ve used fresh corn, because it was available, but frozen corn works as well. Frozen corn also helps to cool the pot, which sometimes help with the cooking of the shrimp.
- Add the sausage. If pre-cooked, just long enough to heat through.
- Add shrimp and boil for 1 minute and then cut the heat immediately. You have to be very careful not to over-cook the shrimp.
Because of the quick cooking time on the shrimp, I’ve struggled in the past getting the shrimp to absorb the boil flavor. Zatarain’s recommends a hot soak time of approximately 2-5 minutes. The hot soak requires merely cutting the heat and letting the food sit in the water, but again, you have to be careful not to over-cook the shrimp. Zatarain’s also recommends a cold soak of 2-5 minutes. To do this, you’ll need to lower the temp of the pot significantly by adding ice to the water to stop the cooking process.
- Spread the newspaper on the tables, drain the contents of the pot, and spread everything across the paper. Let
people come and pick and choose.
And use your fingers. Trust me, licking the spice off the tips is almost as good as the food itself!
I said above that this would be a great little feast to cook with friends over the 4th of July weekend. Really though, you don’t need a specific celebration to try this.
The cooking and eating becomes a celebration in and of its self.
So give it a try and let me know how it goes. Or, if you’ve done this before, fill me in on any little tips and tricks you have… as you can tell by Remi and Possum, we are far from professionals!