When rail travel’s most vibrant days still were yet to be, passengers aboard Illinois Central’s overnight service from Chicago to New Orleans savored fine dining before a contented drowsiness bid them to their cabins. The evening got underway with a menu offering a variety of beguiling choices, including today’s entry, Shrimp Creole. Indeed, the dish became the line’s signature culinary creation.
This meal, among dozens of others, is detailed in James Porterfield’s Dining By Rail, a wonderful celebration of mobile cuisine. Shrimp Creole is a vibrant realization of the shellfish’s potential, made all more entrancing as the world rushes by the windows in a blur, the train gliding ever southward.
The preparation puts one in mind of the Crescent City’s enchanting warmth. Succulent, slightly briny prawns are vital, of course, but so are tomatoes, offering a tangy enhancement of the shrimp’s sweetness. Louisiana’s “holy trinity” of peppers, onions and celery add unmistakable herbal notes and give the sauce a Creole pulse. Mushrooms supply a certain richness, while a dash – or more – of cayenne pepper foretells the spicy heat ahead.
Though Shrimp Creole was served for decades aboard Illinois Central’s dining cars, its listing in a 1936 menu was a bit elaborate, appearing as, “Fresh Gulf Coast Shrimps a la Creole.” The description was, perhaps, somewhat extravagant, but the price wasn’t. In the Thirties it was 45 cents. Less than half a dollar. Seriously!
Such prices were genuine bargains, even eighty years ago. They were “loss leaders” for the railroads, which, along with the exquisite cuisine passengers could expect, enticed travelers. For many decades, it worked brilliantly. Particularly when dinner provided a tantalizing taste of the delights that awaited the next day, after the world flew past.
For the shrimp:
- 2 pounds jumbo shrimp, unpeeled until just before plating
- 4 whole allspice berries
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 celery stalk, broken into four pieces
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
For the Creole sauce:
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 1 medium onion, diced (*1)
- 1 green pepper, diced
- 2 stalks celery, diced
- 1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 cup tomato puree
- 1 cup tomatoes, chopped and drained
- 1/2 cup canned mushroom pieces (*2)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (*3)
- 1/2 bay leaf
- 2 cups boiled rice, for service
Prepare the shrimp first. In a 3-quart saucepan, place enough water to cover the shrimp and add the allspice, cayenne pepper, bay leaf, salt, celery and vinegar. Set over a medium flame and bring to a boil, then add the shrimp. Cover the pot and continue boiling for six minutes.
Remove from the flame and drain shrimp in a colander, discarding everything else in the saucepan. Rinse the shrimp with cold water until they’re barely cool enough to handle. Peel the shrimp and keep them in a warm spot while you prepare the sauce.
Rinse out and dry the saucepan and place it back over a medium flame. Pour in the oil. When the oil shimmers, add the onion, green pepper and saute them for four minutes, then stir in the garlic and cook for a minute more. Add the flour and stir well.
Introduce the chicken stock, tomato puree, tomato pieces and mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and add the cayenne pepper and bay leaf. Cover, reduce flame to low, and cook for thirty minutes. Turn off the flame and discard the bay leaf.
Divide the rice into four servings, mounding half a cup’s-worth each in the center of four plates. Arrange about ten shrimp around each mound of rice, and pour half a cup apiece of Creole sauce over the shrimp on each plate, taking care not to get any sauce on the rice. Garnish rice with parsley (*4) and serve.
1 – You know me and onions, and you can be equally confident I substituted a large shallot.
2 – Generally (OK, almost always), I try to avoid canned or processed products, though an exception is justified in this case. You see, chefs aboard dining cars prepared their meals while in transit. This meant they relied on certain products which could be stored and transported, hence the canned products. Most everything, though, still was made “from scratch,” more than can be said of many modern meals. Quite an accomplishment in a cramped galley.
3 – Or more. I found half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, twice the suggested amount, was just right, providing tingle, while stopping short of a roaring flame. Many enjoy heat for heat’s sake, though I’m not among them.
4 – Just as I have a hang-up with onions (honest, I do like them!), a similar madness causes me to prefer cilantro to parsley. Cilantro is fresher, is much less bitter and is, in a word, better. Sorry, parsley fans!