Traveling Gourmet: Causing a Stir

Court bouillon and other classic one-pot dishes

Eugenia Uhl Photograph

One-pot dishes are the glory and the backbone of Louisiana cooking. Gumbo, red beans, meats cooked slowly in a spicy brown gravy, crawfish smothered in their own fat, sweet and succulent stewed shrimp – these everyday foods, served with rice, are the essence of Cajun and Creole cooking. There are geographical and even familial variations in how the dishes are prepared, but they incorporate many of the same seasonings. Garlic, onions, celery, bell peppers, hot peppers, cayenne, hot sauce – it’s a sure bet that some, if not all, of them will make an appearance.

Many one-pot preparations include tomatoes, either fresh, canned or in the form of tomato paste or tomato purée. Some familiar examples include redfish court bouillon, turtle sauce piquante and shrimp Creole. A Louisiana court bouillon is a stew made with fish cooked in a spicy and flavorful tomato gravy. This is a far cry from the French court bouillon, which is an aromatic broth used for poaching fish or vegetables.

It would be interesting to know how our version of court bouillon evolved from the Gallic original, but the evidence is very scanty. Early Louisiana cookbooks are certainly inconclusive on the subject. The earliest recipes for court bouillon I’ve found appear in Creole Cookery, published in 1885 by the Christian Woman’s Exchange in New Orleans. The three recipes in that book are all in the vein of the classic French court bouillon, and none of them includes tomatoes.

By 1900 and the publication of Mme. Begue and Her Recipes: Old Creole Cookery, tomatoes had begun to make inroads, although their conquest of the court bouillon was apparently not yet complete. Begue’s recipe for court bouillon calls for frying the redfish in lard before making a sauce with flour, red wine, onions, garlic and “strong red pepper.” This is quite a departure from the classic French version, but there are no tomatoes in the dish.

Begue’s small book also includes a recipe from a Monsieur Victor, who is said to have operated a highly regarded Bourbon Street restaurant. His Courtbouillon a L’Espagnole contains tomatoes, peppers and olive oil, which suggests that Spanish cooking might have given rise to the tomato-based court bouillon that we know today. That would certainly fit in with Louisiana history; our cooking has been influenced by both French and Spanish cuisines.

To judge from the 1901 edition of The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book, it appears that the tomato-based court bouillon has become the norm, though the book does nothing to dispel the confusion over origins.

Contemporary court bouillons vary greatly from one cook to another. Some versions are thick, like a stew; others are more soupy. The color of the dish also varies, from reddish-brown to red, and flavors cover a wide range.

If there is confusion over the nomenclature and evolution of the Louisiana court bouillon, it is nothing compared to the fog that envelops dishes labeled “sauce piquante” and “à la Creole” (or, more commonly, “Creole”). Both contain many of the same ingredients that go into a court bouillon, so it’s probably inevitable that questions should arise. While court bouillon is made with fish, sauce piquante or Creole preparations are prepared with a variety of ingredients, among them pork, chicken, shrimp, frog legs and turtle.

It is always worth remembering that Louisiana cooking developed and evolved among home cooks who were not following recipes. They were using ingredients that were available to them, and the disparate influences of their own backgrounds determined what went into the pot. It must have been an exciting period of discovery, adaptation and synthesis as the cooking traditions of the French, Acadian, Spanish, African, German and Caribbean peoples combined with those of American Indians (and others) to form the great gumbo that we call Louisiana cooking.

Shrimp Sauce Piquante

This will make more shrimp stock than you need for this recipe. Save and freeze the excess for use in other dishes, such as court bouillon, gumbo and étouffée. Use enough cayenne and hot sauce to give the sauce a good “kick.”

4 pounds heads-on shrimp
Water
3 bay leaves
3 sprigs parsley
4 cloves crushed garlic
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, minced
1 large bell pepper, minced
1 stalk celery, minced
4 tablespoons dry roux
2 cups crushed tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
Hot sauce to taste
1/4 cup chopped green onion tops
1/4 cup chopped parsley


Peel and devein the shrimp, reserving the heads and shells. In a large pot, cover the shrimp heads and shells with water, and add the bay leaves, parsley sprigs and garlic. Bring to a boil, and boil for 10 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, and set aside.

In a large, heavy pot, simmer the onion, bell pepper and celery in oil, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. In a mixing bowl, combine the roux with 4 cups of the shrimp stock, and whisk to dissolve the roux. Add to the pot. Add the tomatoes and thyme; bring to a boil; and season to taste with salt, black and cayenne peppers and hot sauce. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Add the shrimp, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are cooked through, about 10 minutes. Adjust the seasonings. Serve over steamed rice, and garnish with chopped green onions and parsley. Serves 4 or more.

Court Bouillon

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 large bell pepper, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
3 cups fish, shrimp or chicken stock
2 tablespoons dry roux
1 cup dry white wine
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
2 pounds redfish or other firm-fleshed fish
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup chopped green onion tops
1/4 cup chopped parsley


In a large, heavy pot over medium heat, cook the onions, bell pepper and celery in oil, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Combine the roux and stock in a mixing bowl, and whisk to dissolve the roux. Add to the pot. Add the wine, tomatoes with their juice, tomato paste, bay leaves, thyme and allspice to the pot. Bring to a boil, and season to taste with salt and black and cayenne peppers. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 45 minutes. Cut the fish into 2-inch chunks. Add to the pot, and cook until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 10 minutes. Add the lemon juice, and adjust the seasonings. Add green onions and parsley. Serve over steamed rice. Serves 4 or more.

Shrimp Creole

4 tablespoons butter
2 medium onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
2 large bell peppers, chopped
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 bay leaves
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
Hot sauce to taste
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined


In a large, heavy pot, cook the onions, garlic, celery and bell peppers in the butter, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their juice, bay leaves, salt, peppers and hot sauce. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add the shrimp, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp turn pink, about 5 to 7 minutes. Adjust the seasonings. Serve over steamed rice. Serves 4.

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