Creole Turtle Soup
Every time I go to Galatoire’s, I find it hard to resist their turtle soup. My last bowl of it got me thinking about making it at home. So after talking it over with Pontchartain Pete, we decided to take it on.
Historically, turtle soup gained popularity with the European explorations of the West Indies, where turtles became an important food resource for sailors and pirates and a luxury item on English tables.
~ New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories, edited by Susan Tucker.
Turtle soup has been a New Orleans dish since, well, New Orleans has been peopled. New Orleans’ turtle soup is different from other regions’ soups by the inclusion of another Louisiana food staple: tomatoes. Elsewhere, turtle soup is a thin brothy soup; in New Orleans, it’s a thick, rich stew-like soup.
Pete learned that although there are as many recipes for Creole Turtle Soup as their are Creole kitchens, all of the recipes had these things in common: turtle meat,veal or beef stock, onions, celery, tomatoes, parsley, thyme, chopped hard boiled eggs, lemon, and sherry.
For the soup, I looked at several of the recipes available online. On his website Gumbo Pages, Chuck Taggert had two recipes, from Commander’s Palace and Arnaud’s. I also looked at Galatoire’s cookbook recipe and decided that I liked elements of all three.
I also wanted to make a lot of it to freeze for later and kept that in mind. Most recipes call for one and a half to two pounds of turtle meat, which, I learned, is carried in two-pound packages, frozen, at a few local seafood markets and groceries. It ain’t cheap; the two-pound pack I got in Covington at Pat’s Seafood ran about $30. I’ve heard a lot of people say that most restaurant turtle soup is not made with turtle meat but with veal and after spending that much on meat that isn’t filet mignon I can see why.
Arnaud’s recipe called for both turtle and veal, and since I wanted to make a lot of soup, I also bought two packages of ground veal, which, at $6.00 a pound, seemed quite reasonable.
As far as seasonings go, the recipes were basically the same, although in addition to the onions, celery and garlic Arnaud’s and Commander’s called for, Galatoire’s also called for a lot of bell pepper and paprika — three peppers and a quarter cup of paprika.
Commander’s calls for beef stock, Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s, veal stock. I took the expensive route. Rather than buy a couple quarts of Swanson’s beef broth, we went with frozen veal demi glace from Langenstein’s, at $14.99 per 2-cup package. I figured 4 cups demi cut with 12 cups water would make for a gallon or so of veal stock. I cooked that down a bit for about 30 minutes with bay leaves, thyme, garlic and two tablespoons–not a quarter cup–of paprika, before adding everything else and it worked out perfectly.
The “everything else” consisted of the turtle meat, veal, vegetables, tomato puree, salt, pepper, hot sauce, lemons and sherry.
I’ve never dealt with turtle before and if any of this required cleaning a dead one, we wouldn’t be here today. Not that getting what was labeled “boneless turtle meat” was a piece of cake. Boneless though it was, there was an awful lot of silverskin and connective tissue that needed trimming, which, with my unskilled knife work, cost about about a half-pound of lost meat.
Here’s the method.
1) Have someone else (Nolanotes) prep all the veggies for you. It ended up being a lot more than needed, but I was thinking big when telling her what quantities to buy and chop.
2) Brown the turtle meat. A little salt and pepper on the meat, a little vegetable oil in a hot pot, and brown the turtle meat on each side, just like if you were making grillades or whatever. After cooling a bit, I chopped the meat up in about 1/4-inch pieces.
3) Brown the veal. Same thing, it was ground already and I just browned it and put it in the bowl with the turtle until the stock and veggies were ready. I taste-tested some of the browned turtle, which tasted more like beef than anything else. Alligator I find to taste like dry chicken with a fishy aftertaste and don’t care for it too much. Turtle tasted much better.
4) Make the stock. Next time I’ll probably start with some boxed stock. This time, though, it was $30 worth of frozen demi glace which I melted down and cut with water, added some bay leaves, dried thyme and oregano, salt and pepper, garlic, one lemon cut into quarters and the paprika and simmered all that while I…
5) Made the roux. All the recipes called for making a separate butter roux to add later on to thicken the soup. Two sticks butter, one cup flour, cook until light brown and set aside.
6) Sweat the veggies. I ended up measuring out two cups each of chopped onion, celery, bell pepper and one cup green onion. Sweated with a little butter until clear, then I added 3 cups of canned tomato puree to the veggies and let that simmer for ten minutes.
7) This is some really involved stuff. I’m taking a break now.
8 ) Add the tomato and veggie mixture to the stock and 1/2 cup of sherry. Get it back to a boil and simmer 10 minutes.
9) Add the browned turtle and veal meat and all the juices that were in the bottom of the bowl. Bring it back to a boil, let simmer 20 minutes.
10) Chop up the boiled eggs and add the roux. WHAT BOILED EGGS??? Alright, that was another step that Nolanotes had taken care of before I started. Chop up three boiled eggs, add to the pot. The roux was sitting in the pot and the excess butter floated to the top. I just poured it off and put the browned flour paste into the pot. It thickened fairly well, I probably could have used another 1/2 cup. Bring to boil and simmer 10 minutes more.
11) Taste and adjust for salt, pepper and heat. I added a few shakes of Crystal. I would have added Tabasco instead but couldn’t find it.
That’s it. Pour in bowl, splash on some more sherry and some more chopped eggs if you like.
A note on the sherry: I used Hartley and Gibson’s Amontillado from Martin Wine Cellar. I had chosen a Manzanilla but consulted with Steve Perret, who suggested a nuttier, more full-bodied, Amontillado for use with turtle soup. That’s why it pays to shop where people know their stuff. It was inexpensive, too–only about $12 for the bottle.