Discover True Cajun Cuisine with Melissa Martin’s Shrimp Spaghetti

The New Orleans chef shares a cozy pasta dish that’s simple but delivers tons of flavor, paired with a zingy Riesling. Plus, 10 additional picks from Wine Spectator

Discover True Cajun Cuisine with Melissa Martin’s Shrimp Spaghetti
This spice-spiked pasta is one of Melissa Martin's go-tos for feeding a crowd; she says it's a reliable hit every time she serves it. (Photo by Denny Culbert, from Mosquito Supper Club by Melissa Martin © 2020)
Oct 15, 2021

Forget everything you think you know about Cajun food.

In New Orleans’ buzziest tourist areas, the word is flaunted on virtually every corner, meant to evoke local, authentic dining. It’s often wrongly synonymous with Creole or associated with heavy, spicy dishes and blackened fish. According to chef Melissa Martin, this style of cuisine has very little resemblance to the Cajun food she grew up eating in Chauvin, La., a town southwest of the city.

“The food that I grew up eating is much lighter, much cleaner,” she says. “Until you get invited into someone's house to have Cajun food, then you've never really had Cajun food.”

So, in 2014, she decided to recreate that experience for the masses—well, a couple dozen guests a night.

It had only been a few years since her return from Northern California, where she was inspired to trade her career in education for a culinary one. She'd initially traveled to Napa to visit a friend for a week after Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home, but she enjoyed the region so much that she returned several times for longer periods, first working harvest at White Rock and later cooking at wineries like Inglenook and Francis Ford Coppola.

Martin initially launched Mosquito Supper Club as a pop-up restaurant in the Bywater neighborhood, and it became a permanent fixture Uptown by 2016. Inside a cozy home more than a century old, Martin served her take on true Bayou cuisine to two communal tables, making the meals feel like an intimate dinner party.

“We put the food out family-style, the way you would at your grandmother's house, and let strangers sit next to each other. We gave them rules, like don’t talk about politics, don’t talk about abortion, be nice to your neighbors,” she says. “And really, it was the guests that made the experience. Yes, the food was there to help, but each night was different depending on what guests we had.”

Since the restaurant’s post-pandemic reopening, all guests are now seated together at a single table, with just one seating each night. The format reflects Martin’s community-focused mindset, which extends beyond the guest experience.

She’s committed to running a business that’s sustainable in its approach to food and in how it treats and pays its staff fairly—not an easy feat. “I always say, I took the restaurant model and threw it against the wall, and I let it break and then I only picked up the pieces that I wanted in my restaurant,” she says. “There's so many things that worked about it, and there's so many things that don't work about it, but you have to try.”

 Chef Melissa Martin
Visits to Napa ignited a culinary passion in Melissa Martin, who pivoted from her education career to become a chef. (Photo by Denny Culbert, from Mosquito Supper Club by Melissa Martin © 2020)

Those values extend to Martin’s purveyors as well. Growing up, ideas like “farm-to-table” and “sustainability” were simply a natural part of Martin’s life. She’s been buying crab from the same family for more than 15 years. After Hurricane Ida ravaged the region in October, she promptly reached out to them and her longtime shrimper to check on their safety and see if she could help, even as she was forced to evacuate her own home.

Stories of fishermen and farmers are interwoven with recipes in Martin’s cookbook, Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes from a Disappearing Bayou. Published in April 2020, the book is part of her ongoing mission to expose people to the underrepresented cuisine she knows and loves. “I really, really, really wanted to share the stories and share the recipes and help bring attention to these places that are literally disappearing—tradition, culture, land, all of it.”

One of the particularly personal recipes is Lucien’s Shrimp Spaghetti, a seafood pasta that’s hearty and cozy enough for fall. It’s always been her son’s favorite meal, so it’s named after him, but it’s also a dish Martin’s own mother would cook for her nearly every week. Since it’s an efficient way to feed a large group, it came in handy several times during the Hurricane Ida evacuations.

“It’s a near perfect meal,” Martin writes in the book. “Simple, sweet, perfectly balanced.” Contributing to that balance are the acidic tomatoes, a kick of spice from cayenne pepper and hot sauce, the sweetness of the shrimp and softened onions, plus a small amount of sugar.

The recipe draws from the Creole technique of cooking tomatoes low and slow, but the tomatoes are added gradually, along with the sugar, to establish complex depth of flavor. “The technique is adding tomato sauce a little bit at a time and letting it almost brown, and then stirring it a lot, almost like a roux, and then adding more tomato sauce to it,” Martin says. She uses canned tomato sauce (not to be confused with pasta sauce) that’s organic when possible and doesn’t contain any added sugar or salt so she can control the flavor. Her brand of choice is Muir Glen; her mom’s is Del Monte.

This step requires some patience, but time is an essential ingredient. Martin recommends waiting about 15 minutes in between each addition if you can, but notes that this will vary depending on your specific appliance and cookware. Lately she’s been making this in a massive wide-bottom casserole dish that has more surface area and therefore cuts down the time. She adds that the sauce can “absolutely” be made in advance, or even partially made and stored in the fridge until you have a chance to finish.

The shrimp join the party toward the end of the cooking process, and then the sauce sits for 30 minutes to let the flavors meld together—just enough time for home cooks hosting their own dinner parties to prep the table and wine pairings.

At Mosquito Supper Club, white wines make up most of the concise but carefully curated wine program, since the menu is predominantly seafood. But the team members are big fans of light reds, sparklers and rosés too. “I love Pinot Noir,” Martin says. “I’m not over it.” There are 30 offerings, including wines by the glass, and the selection is highly seasonal and frequently rotates. “There are some weeks where the whole thing flips.”

With help from sommelier Noah Bonaparte Pais, Martin suggests pairing the shrimp spaghetti with the Teutonic Wine Company Riesling Pear Blossom Vineyard 2020 from Washington. Pais describes the wine as similarly styled to a kabinett Riesling from Germany's Mosel region. “[It has] enough mouth-puckering acid to level out generous fruit sugar,” he says. “It drinks like an off-dry limeade on actual rocks, perfection with shrimp and spicy or zesty fare.”

Below are 10 additional recommendations for similarly mouth-puckering yet balanced Rieslings that have been recently rated by Wine Spectator, hailing from the Mosel, New York’s Finger Lakes, Alsace and more.


Lucien’s Shrimp Spaghetti

Excerpted from Mosquito Supper Club by Melissa Martin (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 2 1/4 pounds yellow onions, finely diced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 cup finely diced celery
  • 1/2 cup finely diced green bell pepper
  • 5 cups canned tomato sauce (not pasta sauce) from three 14.5-ounce cans
  • 5 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 1/2 pounds peeled and deveined small or medium shrimp
  • 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 tablespoon hot sauce, preferably Original Louisiana Hot Sauce
  • 1 pound spaghetti, cooked as directed on the package (see note)
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped green onion, for garnish
  • Grated parmesan cheese, for serving (see note)

Preparation

1. Warm a wide, heavy-bottomed 15-quart Dutch oven or stockpot over medium-high heat for 2 minutes, then add the oil and heat for 30 seconds. Add the onions—you should hear a sizzle when they hit the oil—and season with the salt. Stir well to coat the onions with the oil, then cook, stirring often, for about 25 minutes, until the onions are soft and golden (they should not have a lot of color at this point).

2. Add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the celery and bell pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 45 minutes.

3. Now you’re going to add the tomato sauce 1/2 cup at a time. Each time you add tomato sauce, add 1/2 teaspoon sugar. (Scandalous, I know.) So, let’s begin. Add 1/2 cup of the sauce and 1/2  teaspoon of the sugar, stir, and heat until the sauce is simmering and bubbling but not boiling, then simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Repeat this process until you’ve added all the sauce and all the sugar, then reduce the heat to its lowest setting and cook, stirring every 10 minutes, for 45 minutes more.

4. Meanwhile, put the shrimp in a large bowl and season it with the black pepper, cayenne, and hot sauce. Let it marinate on the counter while the sauce simmers.

5. When the sauce has simmered for 45 minutes, add the shrimp and 4 cups hot water to the pot and stir to combine. Raise the heat to medium-high to bring the tomato sauce back up to a simmer, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook for 20 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened to the consistency of pizza sauce and no longer looks watery. Turn off the heat and let everything sit together for 30 minutes to allow the flavors to marry.

6. Serve the sauce over the cooked spaghetti, garnished with the parsley and green onion and topped with parmesan. Serves 6 to 8.

Chef notes: If you’d like one less pot to wash, cook the spaghetti right in the sauce the way some Cajuns do: 8 to 10 minutes before the sauce is done, crack the spaghetti in half and add it to the pot along with 1/4 cup water. The pasta’s starch helps to thicken the sauce. Cover the pot and simmer the noodles in the sauce for about 15 minutes before letting it sit off the heat for 30 minutes.

When I was growing up, there was no real cheese in the grocery aisles down the bayou—only the “parmesan cheese” that came in a green can. We all know that what comes out of that green can isn’t true cheese, so get a nice chunk of the real stuff and smother your spaghetti with freshly grated parmesan.


Note: The following lists are selections of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More options can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.

10 Zingy Rieslings

NIK WEIS ST.-URBANS-HOF

Riesling Mosel From Old Vines 2019

Score: 92 | $19

WS review: Supple and balanced, this white evokes peach, ripe apple and floral flavors, with an underlying hint of dried herb. Delicate and sleek, with a long and refreshing finish. Drink now. 8,000 cases made. From Germany.—Bruce Sanderson


CHATEAU STE. MICHELLE-DR. LOOSEN

Riesling Columbia Valley Eroica 2019

Score: 91 | $20

WS review: This fresh and lovely Riesling is crisp yet supple, with notes of orange blossom, petrol and floral peach that linger on the long finish. Drink now. 12,300 cases made. From Washington.—Tim Fish


FORGE

Riesling Seneca Lake Dry Classique 2019

Score: 91 | $18

WS review: Vibrant mustard flower, white peach and chamomile notes make this white racy and vivid, with mouthwatering cut on the finish. Drink now through 2025. 9,306 cases made. From New York.—James Molesworth


TRIMBACH

Riesling Alsace 2018

Score: 91 | $27

WS review: A sleek, mouthwatering white, marrying a pronounced petrol-laced overtone with a creamy range of apricot, persimmon and yellow apple fruit and preserved lemon, pine and anise aromatics. Racy finish. Drink now through 2026. 30,000 cases made. From France.—Alison Napjus


BOUNDARY BREAKS

Riesling Finger Lakes Dry No. 239 2019

Score: 90 | $20

WS review: A bright, floral style with lots of honeysuckle and acacia notes leading the way for lemon peel and yellow apple fruit flavors, followed by a zingy finish. Drink now through 2024. 2,500 cases made. From New York.—J.M.


CHARLES & CHARLES

Riesling Yakima Valley Art Den Hoed Vineyard 2018

Score: 90 | $14

WS review: Leads off with steely dryness before evolving to an off-dry profile, opening to star fruit, petrol and nectarine accents layered on a plush finish. Drink now. 15,000 cases made. From Washington.—T.F.


H. DÖNNHOFF

Riesling Nahe 2019

Score: 90 | $24

WS review: Peach and currant flavors take center court in this white, with accents of citrus, white pepper and stone. This is lively and crisp, with a chalky feel on the finish. Drink now through 2028. 1,200 cases made. From Germany. —B.S.


EMPIRE

Estate Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2018

Score: 90 | $19

WS review: Maturing already, with yellow apple and peach flavors starting to broaden out, backed by paraffin and verbena on the finish, where there is still good underlying zip. Drink now through 2022. 5,000 cases made. From New York.—J.M.


DR. HEIDEMANNS-BERGWEILER

Riesling Mosel 2019

Score: 90 | $13

WS review: A mix of peach, lemon and slate details mark this piquant white. Vibrant acidity drives the flavors to a long conclusion. Drink now through 2024. 8,500 cases made. From Germany.—B.S.


PIKES

Riesling Clare Valley Hills & Valleys 2019

Score: 90 | $17

WS review: Candied pear, lemon drop and succulent ripe peach flavors are intense, harmonious and wonderfully juicy, with lemon blossom and lime zest lingering on the long, expressive finish. Drink now. 3,000 cases made. From Australia.—MaryAnn Worobiec

Recipes cooking holidays-celebrations white-wines

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