When I lived in Biloxi, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina, I cooked a lot of what I called "Utopian Biloxi food," a cuisine born of the place and the people I saw every day: white and black Southerners mingling -- some for the first time -- with their Vietnamese fisherman neighbors, all fighting to restore their home after the storm.
I wrote about it at the time:
East Biloxi, right now, is a place where you can think about Utopia. It's poor, neglected, and was ripped up by Hurricane Katrina, so that might seem like a strange thing to say. But if you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs --well, the eggs here are already broken.
As people and businesses return, sometimes with gusto, sometimes more haltingly, there is space to think about what kind of a community they want to re-create. Maybe all this thinking will turn out to be wishful, but as long as there are still people working to rebuild, wishful thinking is fuel.
I imagined a Biloxi where the post-storm community that formed across race and culture held, where people were happy to have so many different people call this place theirs, where they ate one another's food and spent afternoons on one another's porches.
So I was sautéing collard greens with onions and a splash of fish sauce, South East Asia's savory, beguiling answer to soy sauce. I made "macaroni and cheese" with Vietnamese rice paper rolls standing in for the noodles, and I tossed pasta with toasted Mississippi pecans and Thai basil.
But thinking back to that time, I realize that I did Utopian Biloxi wrong: I never added any Mexican flavor to the mix.
I was still wrapping my head around the fact that there is a vibrant Vietnamese community in this corner of the South, so maybe I could be forgiven for not realizing that all the post-storm construction workers I saw were, in fact, the beginnings of a Mexican community as well, even as I began to see stacks of tortillas next to the bamboo shoots at the Vietnamese market.
So now, with the hopeful but wary shrimp season beginning on the Gulf, I want to pay tribute to Utopian Biloxi one more time.
Utopian Biloxi Shrimp Tacos
Inspired in equal parts by Mexico, Vietnam and Mississippi, these tacos borrow tortillas and cabbage from Baja fish tacos, cilantro and quick-pickled carrot and radish from Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, and marry them with pecans and shrimp -- the pride of Mississippi.
Makes 8 tacos
½ small head of cabbage, shredded (preferably red. It's prettier and better for you!)
2 cloves of garlic
1 pound large shrimp, peeled (American wild-caught, please)
8 corn tortillas (for these I like the lightness of a single tortilla per taco)
salt and pepper, to taste
Sriracha or other chili sauce, to taste
fish sauce or soy sauce, to taste
For marinated radish and carrot:
(Recipe adapted from the wonderful book "Southeast Asian Flavors"; go ahead and make more than this to have them on hand to give a sweet-tart crunch to anything.)
3 tablespoons white vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
Generous pinch kosher salt (or smaller pinch table salt)
½ cup daikon or red radish, cut into thin (1/8-inch) strips
½ cup carrot, cut into thin (1/8-inch) strips
Cilantro, roughly chopped, to taste
1 avocado, cut into 8 or 16 wedges, lightly tossed with lime juice and salt
Jalapeño, thinly sliced, to taste, optional
Sriracha chili sauce, to taste, optional
3 tablespoons toasted and crumbled pecans, optional
- Marinate vegetables: Whisk together the vinegar, sugar and salt until dissolved. Toss with vegetables, and let it all get friendly for at least 30 minutes, stirring once or twice. This can be made up to a few days ahead, before the vegetables start to lose their crunch.
- Brine the shrimp: Fill a bowl with enough cold water to cover shrimp (but don't add the shrimp yet). Add salt, enough to make it taste like seawater. Then add about a quarter that amount of sugar, just enough to help balance the flavor of the salt a little. Smash the garlic cloves but good, and add them too. Add the shrimp, and keep in the fridge for about 30 minutes. Yes, you're brining something that's lived in seawater its entire life. But brining shrimp is amazing -- it gives them a snappy texture, and turns their flavor from conventional TV to Hi-Def. Besides, don't you want them to feel at home before you sear the hell out of them and eat them?
- Sauté the cabbage: Get a large, heavy sauté pan ripping hot over high heat, and add enough oil just to coat the bottom of the pan. When the oil is just starting to smoke, add the cabbage; it's OK to let it mound a bit, but don't go crazy and have so much cabbage you can't stir or toss it without half of it falling out of the pan. Cook in batches if you need. Anyway, don't touch it for about half a minute while the bottom sears and caramelizes. When you get a little color, start tossing or stirring, and season with a couple pinches of salt (it's OK to leave it a little bland at this point). Cook, stirring or tossing, until cabbage wilts, but still has a little crunch left. Season to taste with a few drops or squirts of chili sauce and fish sauce or soy sauce, toss in pan until the fish sauce or soy sauce are aromatic, and remove to a bowl.
- Heat the tortillas: Preheat your oven (or even a toaster oven) to the lowest heat. Heat a large cast iron or other heavy pan over medium heat, and warm the tortillas one at time (or two, if they'll both fit without overlapping). Flip them after half a minute or so. You just want them warmed up and pliable; don't let them heat too long or they'll start to get hard. Keep them warm on a plate in the oven.
- Cook the shrimp: Drain the shrimp well from the brine, and thoroughly pat them dry with paper towel. You want them really dry. Their days in the water are over, man. Season with pepper. Your pan should still be hot from the tortillas. Bump the heat to high and add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. When the oil just starts to smoke, add the shrimp in one layer, giving each poor devil a little bit of room between itself and the next shrimp. Don't touch them while they sear. When the entire bottom half of the shrimp have turned pink, take a look at the color you're getting. If it's a nice golden, flip the shrimp and finish cooking on the other side. Don't overcook them -- when they're pink all the way through and feel firm when you poke them with your finger, they're done. Sometimes you'll end up cooking them most of the way on one side while waiting for that little bit of browning; that's OK. Don't worry about browning both sides if you might overcook them.
- Assemble the tacos: It goes like this: Tortilla; mound of cabbage; avocado slices; chili sauce if using; a few shrimp; marinated vegetables; jalapeño slices if using; sprinkle of pecans, if using; cilantro. Serve with lime wedges, and imagine an ideal future.