Let's Hear It for the 'Boy
When it comes to the best food in the Big Easy, nothing quite compares to a shrimp po'boy. Golden fried shrimp topped with lettuce, tomato and plenty of hot sauce, all smashed between crusty bread—it makes for one epic sandwich. But since we can't always sneak away to New Orleans, we've decided to unlock the secrets of this American classic with a po'boy recipe you can make in the comfort of your own kitchen.
First, a history lesson from Justin Kennedy, head chef and general manager of Parkway Bakery & Tavern, a New Orleans staple that's been serving po'boys for almost 90 years. According to Kennedy, the "poor boy" sandwich was created in 1929 during the Great Depression. "The street car conductors were not getting paid, so they went on strike," Kennedy explains. "Benny and Clovis Martin, who were former conductors themselves, had a grocery and coffee stand. They put the word out, if a hungry striker in need came by their shop, they would feed that poor boy."
Though the first po'boy was made of fried potatoes, roast beef and gravy on French bread, the sandwich has evolved to include many fillings, including the popular shrimp version. In our recipe, we marinate shrimp in hot sauce and buttermilk before breading them in a spiced cornmeal mixture and frying them until crisp. Then we layer the shrimp on a classic French roll with hot sauce-laden mayo, lettuce, tomato and sliced cornichons. This is a sandwich that requires two hands and your full attention (see the recipe).
To get this sandwich down just right, here are tips and tricks from Kennedy and New Orleans-based celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse.
"Po'boy bread is light and airy, never too dense inside, with a thin, crisp crust. This makes it easy for the star of the po'boy to be the filling, with the bread playing a beautiful supporting role," Lagasse explains. The one thing to keep in mind is how fast the bread goes stale. You're going to want to buy your bread the same day you're making your sandwiches to ensure it maintains its light and fluffy interior.
Now, it can be difficult to track down this kind of bread. So we're have some tips if you're local bakery doesn't carry it (which is very likely). First, try going to any local sandwich shop that has a po'boy on its menu. If the guys behind the counter are nice, they'll sell you the bread for a few bucks, and you'll be set. Your second option is ordering online, where you can get bread shipped to you straight from NOLA. Finally, you can substitute a fresh French roll for this recipe. It won't be the same but will definitely suffice.
"The perfect po'boy shrimp are neither too small nor too large," Lagasse says. "A medium-to-large Gulf shrimp, say 15 count per pound, is my personal favorite." This way, the shrimp will have enough time to get golden and crisp in the oil without overcooking and turning rubbery.
As for frying, we recommend going quick with a few at a time to get the best result. You want the oil to be hot so you can get that beautiful golden brown. Just be sure to let your oil get back to temperature in between batches to ensure the shrimp cook properly.
Can We Build It?
Once you've fried the shrimp, it's time to assemble the sandwich. "Down South, most people get their po'boy 'dressed,' which means it comes with lettuce, tomato, mayo and pickles." For our recipe, we slather on mayo laced with Crystal hot sauce before piling on shredded iceberg, sliced heirloom tomatoes and cornichons over the shrimp.
Then, just follow Lagasse's final piece of advice, "Pass the hot sauce around the table and serve with an ice cold Barq’s or your favorite beer."
As he puts it, "Bottom line: You don’t need to do much to a shrimp po'boy to make it exceptional!"
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