Po’ boys are iconic in coastal cuisine, especially in southern Louisiana and along the Gulf of Mexico. They’re a New Orleans classic said to have originated in the early twentieth century, the name originating from the hungry plea, “Give a po’ boy a sandwich?” The original po’ boys were hollowed-out loaves of French bread layered with meat, brown gravy and fried potatoes. You can still get roast beef po’ boys with “debris” gravy, a flavorful jus with bits and pieces of roast beef in it.
However, with the Gulf at New Orleans’ front door, seafood has a mighty hold on Creole and Cajun cuisine.
Since time began, folks with less have harvested from the river and seas, for free. We may think of seafood as expensive now, but if you live on a body of water, dinner just might be as close as a hook or a net and a little bit of patience. Seafood po’ boys include fried oysters, fried catfish, fried soft-shell crab and, yes, fried shrimp. Don’t even think about cranking up the deep fryer or even heating up the grill, because these BBQ Shrimp Po’ Boys are poached in a highly seasoned garlic and lemon-butter sauce.
“Sauce” is a term I will use loosely; it’s not really a sauce. It’s really flavored butter — and lots of it. There’s not much more soul-satisfying and messy than a BBQ shrimp po’ boy. This is a get-on-in-there-and-grab-it kind of sandwich. You can judge how buttery and juicy it is by the number of napkins it takes to keep your face, hands and lap clean. Overindulgence and richness and a deep appreciation of good food and drink are what define New Orleans. New Orleans is in mind and spirit quite separate from the rest of Louisiana. It’s deep, deep South, heartily flavored with a heavy dose of the Caribbean.
When buying shrimp, look for firm shrimp with a mild, almost sweet scent. If there is any scent of ammonia, it is a sign that the shrimp is no longer fresh. I buy only wild American shrimp and hope you will consider doing the same. Look to Seafood Watch to judge what are the most-sustainable shrimp to buy.
The biggest mistake with cooking shrimp is cooking them far too long. Most people overcook them, and the shrimp bounces in your mouth like a beach ball. Cook them just until they form a loose “C,” fill a slab of bread and drizzle over the savory, spicy, buttery juices — and grab a handful of napkins, of course. Get ready for some indulgent down-home comfort, N’awlins-style!
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Get the Recipe: BBQ Shrimp Po’Boys
Georgia-born, French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has cooked lapin Normandie with Julia Child in France, prepared lunch for President Clinton and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. A Southern food authority, she is the author of Bon Appétit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, among others. Follow her continuing exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.