RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We go now to New Orleans, a city that knows how to eat. Its signature barbecue shrimp dish has over the years been copied in restaurants throughout the Crescent City and across the country. It was born in an Italian Creole restaurant called Pascal's Manale, where it's still the star dish. As part of our summer series Do Try This At Home, NPR's John Burnett visits a chef who will show us how to do just that.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Let's get something straight. This barbecue shrimp has absolutely nothing to do with barbecue. There's no grill, no coals, no skewers. The shrimp is cooked in a frying pan.
MARK DEFELICE: My name is Mark DeFelice. And I'm the chef and co-owner here at Pascal's Manale restaurant. I'm a fourth-generation family member.
BURNETT: DeFelice says the key to making great barbecue shrimp is to use whole shrimp. When you order it at Pascal's Manale, they come served with the head on, with the long, pink antennae trailing out of the bowl.
DEFELICE: The head on the shrimp is important because it contains the fat and the protein. And that's where a lot of the flavor is from in the barbecue shrimp.
BURNETT: Shrimp fat.
DEFELICE: Shrimp fat, yep - all natural.
BURNETT: But head on shrimp can be hard to find in cities far from the coast. So what DeFelice is going to do is demonstrate how to cook headless barbecue shrimp with more spices added to make up for the missing head.
DEFELICE: What we're going to do, we're going to fire up this pan, get a little heat under it.
BURNETT: Mark DeFelice is 59, with a gray Van Dyke beard, wearing a white chef's jacket and possessing the no-b.s. manner of someone who's worked in a commercial kitchen most of his life. He says the recipe for this much-copied dish came from a friend of his grandfather's from Chicago, named Jimmy Sutro, who he says may have been a gangster. He would come to New Orleans to bet on race horses. And he and grandfather Pascal would hang out.
DEFELICE: And they went in the kitchen and started playing around with the barbecue shrimp. And they got it to where they wanted it. And it's been a hit ever since. And that was about 1953.
BURNETT: Why do you call it barbecue?
DEFELICE: Only because when it comes out, it kind of looks like it's got a reddish tint.
BURNETT: He stations himself at a gas range before the restaurant opens for lunch. He brings out a bowl of large, headless white shrimp. They're measured by the count. These are 20 to 25 a pound.
DEFELICE: OK, right now I'm just putting olive oil in. And now I'm going to take the shrimp - the shrimp. And then what I'm going to do is I'm going to take some white wine, pour a little white wine in there. And then we're going to sprinkle black pepper, a little cayenne pepper, some paprika, some thyme, oregano, basil.
BURNETT: He shakes in some Tabasco, chopped garlic and Worcestershire sauce.
DEFELICE: Now I'm going to let that simmer for a little while... One little pat of butter here to give it a little creaminess effect.
BURNETT: Pascal's Manale has been here on Napoleon Avenue for 102 years. Today there's more competition than ever. New Orleans is in a full-scale restaurant boom. There were about 800 eateries here before Hurricane Katrina a decade ago. Today, there are more than 1,300. The new menus are adventurous. Kimchee wings, pork belly tacos, bacon-wrapped dates. Pascal's is old-school, oysters Rockefeller and shrimp remoulade. The restaurant is too. On the walls of the wood-paneled bar are signed celebrity photos of Ernest Borgnine, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Liberace. After simmering for four to five minutes, the shrimp is done. They're a nice dirty pink color, speckled with spice.
DEFELICE: I'm going to pour a little bit of the juice in there.
BURNETT: DeFelice spoons them into bowls and sprinkles on a little parsley.
DEFELICE: And there you go. We have a little tabletop home version of barbecue shrimp.
BURNETT: We head into the white tablecloth dining room. He brings a loaf of crisp French bread from Leidenheimerâs bakery, another local institution, to sop up the buttery, peppery juice. Our fingers get greasy as we peel and eat the succulent crustaceans.
This is wild-caught shrimp, isn't it?
DEFELICE: Yes, sir, wild-caught Louisiana shrimp.
BURNETT: Makes a big difference.
To do this at home, if you can't procure head-on shrimp, at least try to use wild shrimp netted from the ocean. Mark DeFelice launches into a paean to wild-caught versus farmed shrimp. It's firmer, has more taste and more fat, supports Gulf shrimpers and, yes, it costs more. But if you're going to go to all this trouble to make barbecue shrimp, you'd better start with good shrimp. John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.
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