Spring brings festive cooking
Enjoy this Greek version of a Creole dish
April showers bring May flowers, as the saying goes. And here in southern Louisiana, that is certainly true. We also get a little extra here because April showers tend to bring more May showers. But that’s OK. Living in a tropical climate teaches us that we can’t let the rain bring life to a halt, especially in the springtime.
Spring in the South is peppered with local weekend festivals. I know this is not just a southern thing. There are local festivals all over the country, and they can be a wonderful way for families to savor Sundays.
My family’s favorite festival is the annual New Orleans Greek Fest hosted by the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral every Memorial Day weekend. It’s a full three-day festival filled with Greek food, music, dance, and culture, including regular tours of the cathedral and its icons. We’ve been attending this festival for almost 20 years, and it has provided our family with so many beautiful memories and friendships. We savor the whole weekend, and every year we invite others to join us.
Being a foodie and a cook, I can’t help but take advantage of the Greek Grocery each year at the Greek Fest. Fresh Kalamata olives, dried Greek spices, Greek olive oils, handmade Greek pita bread, and handmade Greek cheeses are available for sale in the grocery all weekend. Every year we stock up on Greek seasonings and our favorite Greek cheese: feta.
When I say “stock up,” I mean that we usually buy 2, 3, or more pounds of feta cheese to bring home. Unfortunately — no matter how much of it we seem to buy — it never lasts as long as we think it will! How could it when we add it to so many dishes? We add feta to the Greek salads we make during the summer, crumble it atop sliced homegrown tomatoes with a little salt, pepper, and a slight drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, and crumble it over pasta, pizza, and even scrambled eggs!
Greek Fest is not the only exciting thing that happens in May. The Louisiana spring shrimp season usually starts in April or May, and fresh shrimp are always plentiful in May, June, and July. It was these two events — Greek Fest and the opening of shrimp season — that inspired the simple and delicious recipe I share with you this month: garlic shrimp with tomatoes, peppers, and feta.
I always encourage families to play in the kitchen. I find that most folks approach cooking much too seriously. This recipe is a result of play. We have a traditional shrimp dish in south Louisiana called shrimp Creole. It’s a spicy, thick tomato-based sauce with shrimp served over rice. It’s not a complex dish. Its origins are in the brick-paved streets and alleyways of the French Quarter.
Shrimp Creole is what I was going for one weekend in early June a handful of years ago. But since we had a stockpile of feta cheese, I wondered how I could tweak the recipe to accommodate its use. I kept the base intact; it’s a tomato sauce. And it’s served over rice. But I changed the flavor profile from Creole to Greek (as you’ll see in the ingredient list). I didn’t know what to expect. I really was playing around in the kitchen. But, guess what? The family loved it. It was a hit.
If there are springtime festivals in your area — parish fairs, culture and heritage festivals, food festivals — consider taking the family into the sunshine this spring to enjoy and savor your Sundays.
GARLIC SHRIMP WITH TOMATOES, PEPPERS, AND FETA
2 pounds large or jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined (if you can’t find fresh shrimp, you can use frozen)
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 cloves of garlic, minced
Zest from 1 lemon
Coarse-ground kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Cayenne pepper, to taste
1 medium to large Vidalia onion (or any other sweet yellow onion), chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
3 to 4 homegrown tomatoes, peeled and chopped, reserving the juice (you can also use canned chopped tomatoes)
¼ cup dry white wine
4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
About 8 ounces of feta cheese, crumbled
3 to 4 tablespoons ouzo (optional)
In a medium-sized glass mixing bowl, add the shrimp, 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 to 2 teaspoons of garlic, the lemon zest, ½ teaspoon of salt, ¼ teaspoon of black pepper, and 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne pepper. Mix well. Then set aside.
Heat a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil. After a minute, when the oil is hot, add the onion and red and green bell peppers. Sprinkle with a dash of salt and give it a good stir. Sauté until the vegetables have softened, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the remaining garlic and the red pepper flakes, and continue to sauté until the garlic softens, about 2 minutes. You will need to stir more frequently at this point.
Add the tomatoes and reserved juice and the white wine. Increase heat to medium-high if you started out at medium, and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for about 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. At this point you really want the flavors to marry and the sauce to thicken just a bit. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the parsley and season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the shrimp and marinade to the sauce. Stir to mix well, making sure that the shrimp level out as much as possible. The goal is to have the shrimp cook evenly. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are cooked through, about 7 to 9 minutes. You might need to extend that time a couple of minutes if you are using jumbo shrimp.
Remove from heat and top with crumbled feta. Serve immediately over rice. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with a generous pinch of parsley.
Feta is a sturdy cheese. Some of the crumbled feta will melt and add a creaminess to the sauce, but most of it will remain intact and add a delightful tanginess to the dish.
Ouzo is optional. Ouzo is the anise-flavored aperitif of Greece. It adds a distinctly Greek flavor to this dish. It’s optional, because not everyone likes anise. If you do opt to use ouzo, you can add 1 tablespoon to the marinade and 2 to 3 tablespoons to the sauce when you add the tomatoes and wine.
Peeling the tomatoes is not absolutely essential. The main reason you would want to do that is to avoid having those pesky stringy tomato skins in your sauce. When tomatoes are cooked down, the skins tend to separate from the rest of the tomato and become stringy. It doesn’t impact the flavor at all, but peeling the tomatoes will make eating this dish a more delightful experience. You can find a great succinct article on the method of peeling tomatoes at CatholicFoodie.com.