Last month I had the opportunity to visit Avery Island, Louisiana, the home of Tabasco. Each year the company selects a group of bloggers to visit their island (which is actually a salt dome surrounded by bayou). In turn, the bloggers are asked to write about their experience and create some recipes using Tabasco sauces. Since I was probably going to make some recipes using Tabasco this year anyway, it was an easy decision to join the event.
I’ve always valued Tabasco sauces for their short ingredients list (the original red pepper sauce contains just three ingredients – peppers, vinegar, and salt), and their ability to add a complex flavor to any dish; I feel that acidity is a tragically underutilized dynamic in most kitchens, and Tabasco has acidity in spades. But until this trip I never realized how much care Tabasco puts into each bottle, which you’ll see in my pictures below the recipe. But first, the food.
It’s coming into flounder season here in Florida, and it is easy to find in my area right now. The fish are caught using a spear (called a “gig”), typically at night, much in the same way that frogs are traditionally caught. A favorite preparation for flounder is to simply pan-fry them in Cajun seasoning (often used interchangeably with the term “blackening seasoning”); since I was already making the seasoning from scratch, I figured this is also an opportunity to incorporate it into one of my other favorite dishes from this area, Étouffée.
Étouffée translates to “smothered” from French, which indicates that the main ingredient (often crawfish, but in this case, shrimp) is smothered in a thick sauce of broth and vegetables. Might as well add some bacon to it for good measure, because bacon.
Pan-Fried Flounder with Shrimp Étouffée (Gluten-free, Paleo, Perfect Health Diet, Whole30-friendly)
2 tsp paprika
2 tsp dried thyme
2 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp onion powder
2 tsp black pepper
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1 pinch ground cinnamon
For the Étouffée:
8oz bacon, sliced
1 tbsp ghee
2 shallots, diced
1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped
1 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tomato, coarsely chopped
2 tbsp white rice flour (coconut flour okay)
2 cups chicken broth, more if needed
8oz raw shrimp, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp heavy cream or coconut milk
1 tsp Tabasco sauce, more to taste
salt to taste
1 handful fresh parsley, chopped
For the flounder:
4 flounder filets (about 1 lb total), or other firm white fish (catfish, tilapia)
2 tbsp ghee
1. Combine the Cajun seasoning ingredients, then remove 2 tbsp of the combined seasoning and set aside. Pat the flounder filets dry with some paper towels then sprinkle the remaining Cajun seasoning over the filets. Place in the fridge as you prepare the Étouffée.
2. In a large skillet, fry the bacon slices over medium heat until just crispy, about 6 minutes. Add the ghee, shallots, celery, and bell pepper; sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and chopped tomato, and sauté until softened, about 4 additional minutes. Stir in the rice flour and the 2 tbsp of reserved Cajun seasoning; cook until aromatic, about 2 minutes. Stir in the chicken broth and simmer until thickened, adding more broth if it gets thicker than gravy. Reduce heat to low to keep warm while you pan-fry the fish.
3. Turn on your oven hood fan, and consider opening a window. Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat until it starts to smoke, about 3 minutes, then add the ghee and immediately add the fish. Pan-fry for one minute, then flip and pan-fry until just starting to flake, about one more minute, then set aside. Fry the fish in batches if needed, to avoid overcrowding the skillet (add more ghee to any additional batches).
4. Increase the Étouffée’s heat to medium; once simmering, stir in the shrimp. Simmer until the shrimp is pink and opaque, about 2 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk and Tabasco, then taste and add salt if needed. Stir in the parsley then serve with the fish and some white rice (or cauliflower rice).
** While cutting the shrimp into large chunks might seem like unnecessary work, it turns out really well in this recipe; you’re left with a bit of shrimp in each bite.
** This is a classic interpretation of the dish; for a more smoky experience, consider using Tabasco Chipotle sauce.
Originally, all Tabasco peppers were grown on Avery Island, but demand has exceeded their ability to produce everything on the island. Today, Tabasco makes up to 800,000 bottles of sauce a day, more than the founder, Edmund McIlhenny, made in his entire lifetime (he started making the sauce in 1868 and made 350,000 bottles in his lifetime).
On Avery Island, the company now grows all of the peppers for their seeds, which are flown to partner farms (located in Latin and South America), who then grow the pepper plants and send the ripe peppers back to the island for processing.
The ripe peppers are crushed into what’s called a “mash”, which is then placed in used white oak bourbon barrels with some salt (mined from Avery Island). The barrels are reinforced with steel rings, plugged with a valve to let gasses escape, and the lids are covered with salt. The barrels are then aged for 3 years, left in a warehouse (which holds 50,000 barrels at once) with no temperature regulation in sight – they’re subject to the Louisiana heat in the same way as when the company first started.
The act of aging the peppers was borne out of necessity, when Edmund McIlhenny had a surplus of peppers and didn’t know what to do with them – he threw them in a barrel for safe keeping and later realized they tasted better that way.
The barrel warehouse was definitely the highlight of the trip for me; it felt like a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. We also tasted the mash right out of the barrel, which is about 10x spicier than the sauce. It was intense! Just being in the same room as the mash had me crying like a baby. This Tabasco mash is so hot that they add it to their Tabasco habanero sauce to make it spicier.
After the peppers have aged, they are inspected. Every morning that he’s on the island, the Tabasco CEO, Tony Simmons, will inspect about 100 barrels of mash, smelling each barrel and even tasting from them every once in a while. If they are approved, the mash is then drained of its brine (which is very salty at this point) and the seeds are extracted; the seeds are then processed and sent to other companies to make products like pepper spray. The de-seeded mash is then mixed with vinegar and aged for another few weeks before being bottled.
One thing I definitely have to mention: if you’re a fan of Tabasco, you should check out their Family Reserve sauce. This sauce is made from peppers grown on Avery Island (those that aren’t grown for seeds), aged for up to eight years, and mixed with a white wine vinegar, the original vinegar used in their sauce. It has a tangy, balanced flavor to it. It’s only sold at their country store on the island or through their online shop; seriously, I almost wish I wasn’t telling you about this for fear of it running out (I did grab a few bottles of it myself so I’ll be good for a while). Anyway, if you have a Tabasco lover in your house, treat them to this sauce, found here.
Disclosure: I was invited on this trip in conjunction with the Tabasco Tastemakers program. All opinions in this post are my own.