On the road one day in New Orleans, I spent some time in the Crescent City Farmers Market and got a lesson in etouffee-making from the doyenne of Louisiana home cooking, Poppy Tooker. Etouffee is a riff on the old French verb "to smother," and while there are as many recipes for etouffee as there are cooks who make it, this one is so easy that it's become an instant classic in our house. I can't imagine a better meal than a pot of etouffee, some rice, a salad and a ripe piece of fruit for dessert. Now, "smothered" food in the South means something that's cooked in gravy and that can and should be served "smothering" a mound of rice. It is invariably rich. And while I am watching my weight, I don't cut corners when it comes to the fats in this recipe; I just cut down on my portion sizes. My inspiration is Mother's restaurant in New Orleans, where the etouffee and jambalaya come in four-ounce soup vessels as a side-dish option. Brilliant!
A word about authenticity versus quality. I opt for quality. I like food to taste good. So, do I make my etouffee with roux or without? I make it without, so it's red. The etouffees of Lafayette (Acadiana Cajun Country) and New Orleans (Creole) and the surrounding areas all use roux--a cooked mixture of flour and fat (usually butter)--which makes the dish brown. Cajun etouffee is usually light brown and more rustic and rich; Creole-style is dark brown, more balanced, and prepared with a classical French approach. Some Cajun cooks eschew the flour and simply cook onions in butter, and I have heard that Paul Prudhomme uses an oil-based roux. I think the fun is in the arguing over which kind of etouffee is best. It's what I love about Louisiana country cooking. So make this recipe and join the debate.--Andrew Zimmern