Though small in size and usually misunderstood, the delectable crawfish is a Louisiana obsession
by Pableaux Johnson
When springtime comes to Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, residents prepare for its annual crustacean invasion. As water temperatures warm, millions of lobsterlike creatures awake from long winter naps and start prowling the muddy swamps and marshes of the Bayou State.
Well-armed and disarmingly buglike, these scaly monsters could have crawled straight out of a B-movie director’s dream. Equipped with powerful claws, beady eyes, and flexible antennae, the dreaded “Crawthra” wear a thick skeletal armor and seem tailor-made for large-scale mayhem. In any low-grade horror movie, these lumbering beasts would crush whole city blocks with mere swipes of their powerful tails.
But luckily for the denizens of Cajun country, these “monsters” weigh in at about four ounces apiece – not exactly panic-inspiring. Louisiana cooks see the little creatures and start to salivate, imagining the critters boiled to spicy perfection, fried in an overstuffed po’boy sandwich, or smothered in buttery gravy. When crawfish emerge in local waterways, it’s time for a feeding frenzy that is a true rite of spring.
What’s in a Name?
Elsewhere in the world, the crawfish goes by other names, including crawdad, mudbug, écrivesse, and the more scientific title “crayfish.” Because crawfish are most often used as bait or for biology dissections, many view the critters as lowly ditch-dwelling curiosities.
From a culinary perspective, however, the tasty crawfish easily rivals its saltwater cousin – the hefty Atlantic lobster. The crawfish’s strong tail, its primary swimming muscle, is coveted for its sweet flavor (somewhere between lobster and shrimp) and melt-in-your mouth texture.
The red swamp crawfish, Procambarus clarkii, looks like a transistorized lobster redesigned by Godzilla’s puppeteers: same hard, cylindrical body and same flexible rings of tail shell, but with pointier claws and an aggressive Napoleon complex.
Lovers of slow-moving water, crawfish thrive in the bayous and swamplands of south Louisiana, where the watersheds of major rivers empty into the Gulf of Mexico. The largest refuge for wild crawfish is the nearly one-million-acre Atchafalaya River Basin, where marshy wilderness provides perfect habitat for alligators, countless species of migratory waterfowl and our good friend the crawfish.
For those unfamiliar with bayou country, the crawfish’s cachet is difficult to grasp, as the people of Louisiana celebrate the tiny crawfish with a near-religious fervor. Throughout the region, you’ll see its beady-eyed visage staring out from billboards and tourist brochures, while cartoon renditions of the sharp-clawed crustacean dance on T-shirts and festival posters. During springtime, restaurant and seafood market signs advertise HOT BOILED CRAWFISH and the seafood finds its way onto most restaurants’ menus. Typically, crawfish season lasts from March to June and is considered sacred among the well-fed locals.
The tradition began where crawfish are most plentiful – in rural communities of Cajun Louisiana. Located to the south and west of New Orleans, Acadiana – short for Acadian Louisiana Ð was settled by refugees from the French colony of Acadie (modern-day Nova Scotia) in the late 1700s. Driven from their homes and farms by the British, these independent frontier folk made their way south to Louisiana and settled in the secluded lands outside the port city of New Orleans. Over time, the name “Acadians” morphed into “Cadians” and, eventually, “Cajuns.”
The Acadians soon applied their wilderness wiles to this swampy new environment. As skilled trappers, hunters, and anglers, the Cajuns found all they could eat in the game-rich Louisiana wetlands. They also found a familiar-looking creature – the crawfish – and quickly integrated the tiny crivesse into their spicy, rustic cuisine.
Before World War II, crawfish were primarily trapped by small-scale fishermen for their family tables. In the 1940s, processing plants sprung up near the Atchafalaya Basin, and pre-peeled crawfish tails (the most succulent meat) made their debut in local markets. Twenty years later, enterprising Louisiana rice farmers teamed up with crawfish experts to raise the shellfish in fallow rice fields across the state’s broad coastal plain. The result is a more controlled growing environment than for wild crawfish – which are susceptible to drought and other variables – and a season that can run from December to the Fourth of July.
Beastly Big Boil
Take a few hundred pounds of live crawfish, plunge them into seasoned boiling water, spill whole mess onto newspaper-covered table. Pick up a steaming crawfish and rip it into two pieces – cephalothorax and tail. Strip shell from tail end, bite off exposed meat, and inhale deeply through the head cavity. Take long quaff of fizzy beer, then throw shell onto towering mountain of empties. Repeat as needed.
Though it’s anything but fancy, a crawfish boil is one of the cornerstones of Louisiana’s culture. The preparation itself is amazingly simple – crawfish cooked with a few vegetables – but the scale required for a good meal complicates matters. For all their gustatory appeal, crawfish only provide a medium-sized morsel of tail meat, so the key to a well-fed crawfish crowd is high volume. Five pounds of boiled crawfish constitutes an average serving of the delectable beast.
During spring, locals hit Acadiana’s back roads in search of “boiling points” – makeshift restaurants specializing in seasonal boiled seafood. As a rule, these lowbrow joints aren’t much for atmosphere (plastic chairs, Formica tables, and shrimp nets decorating wood-paneled walls) but they’re great for a simple sit-down meal or “Cajun fast food” (five pounds in an Styrofoam “go box”). Boiling points are the cure for midweek crawfish cravings, when peeling is about all you can handle.
By contrast, a backyard crawfish boil – a traditional Easter event throughout Louisiana – is an epic affair involving 40-pound sacks of wriggling crawfish and bubbling cauldrons big enough to be stirred with canoe paddles. Unlike a New England lobster boil, where ingredients fit into a single grocery sack, Louisiana crawfish boils require planning and a pickup truck, used to transport a makeshift outdoor kitchen.
The proper “kitchen tools” for a crawfish boil are spiritual descendents of oil field equipment. Many families in south Louisiana own oversized propane-powered gas burners – the perfect portable stovetop for crawfish boils (and summertime fish-frying extravaganzas). When fired up to full strength, these burners can bring a 10-gallon pot of water to a rolling boil in minutes.
The cooks season the water with halved lemons, quartered onions, prepackaged seafood seasoning – a mix of bay leaves, mustard seed, allspice, clove, and other aromatics – and copious amounts of cayenne pepper. When the mixture is brought up to temperature, properly spiced, it resembles a pot of boiling blood.
While the water boils, the crawfish are transferred from their sacks to a huge container (oversized ice chest or plastic wading pool) filled with heavily salted water. This purging process cleans the crawfish’s digestive tract, literally taking the mud out of the mudbug.
Following a thorough post-purge rinsing, the cooking crew loads about 10 pounds of crawfish into a colander-style metal basket that fits snugly into the pot. Red potatoes and short cobs of sweet corn – traditional “cook-along” side dishes – are usually thrown in as the boiling crawfish change color from dull greenish-brown to bright, spicy red. After 10 to 12 minutes, the cooked crawfish are lifted from the water, drained, and spilled onto a large picnic-style table covered with a protective coating of newspapers. The vibrant red mountain shimmers with fragrant steam and sunlight, and the basket heads back to the pot for another batch.
After a few minutes of cooling and audience admiration, the assembled diners crowd the table and literally tear into the freshly cooked creatures. A backyard boil is a peel-it-yourself affair, with each person choosing a crawfish from the pile, twisting its tasty tail from the claw/head assembly, peeling the tail, and sometimes dipping the sweet meat in a tomato-based cocktail sauce spiked with pepper sauce and sinus-clearing horseradish. Lover of the crawfish’s rich “fat” – the spice-attracting liver – “suck the heads” with a sharp inhale before throwing the clawed carcass aside.
Within minutes, the busy diners limit between-bite conversations to wordless commentary on flavor and spiciness (“Mmmmm” and “WHOOOOO!” respectively, being most common). Experienced peelers hit their stride early, pausing only for the occasional sip of palate-cleansing beer.
As the afternoon wears on and the piles of meatless shells grow, every guest feels the satisfying burn of pepper on lips and fingers. When the final basketful descends into the spicy water, veteran peelers continue their work as greenhorns drift away from the table, feasting on peeled tails of the remaining crawfish – the Cajun equivalent of the Holy Grail.
Tale of the Tail
Eastertime may still be best for an affordable crawfish boil, but due to efficient processing and quick-freezing techniques, tasty crawfish dishes are no longer seasonal indulgences. Thanks to the development of pre-peeled tail meat (shrink-wrapped with its own fat), crawfish have become a year-round commodity. And with the added convenience of modern-day shipping, plastic bags of peeled tails are available nationwide through gourmet supply stores and larger grocery chains.
In New Orleans, creative chefs have embraced the noble mudbug with dishes as diverse as curried crawfish tails, smooth crawfish au gratin, Asian-inspired crawfish potstickers, and – in a culinary double-whammy – crawfish-stuffed speckled trout topped with crawfish cream sauce.
Because of their bold flavors and simplicity, the more traditional Cajun dishes provide a good introduction to the Louisiana crawfish. Unfussy dishes like the classic etouffee (crawfish tails smothered with onions and peppers, then served over rice) make for a simple and authentic taste of Cajun tradition. More involved cooks might try their hands at a rich crawfish bisque garnished with stuffed crawfish heads, a satisfying crawfish stew, or Hank Williams’ personal favorite (crawfish piiiiiiiiiieeee).
Whether you buy them whole or peeled, boiled or fried, smothered or folded into a rich Alfredo sauce, you’ll be amazed by the adaptability of this amazingly delicious shellfish. And as the waters of the Atchafalaya warm up after a brief winter chill, you’ll join Louisiana natives in anticipating the annual, and all-too-short, invasion of the loveable crawfish.
- 2 lbs peeled crawfish tails with fat (available in the seafood section of specialty stores)
- 1/4 c. butter
- 1/2 c. celery, diced
- 1/2 c. onions, diced fine
- 1/2 c. green bell pepper, diced
- 2 c. cold water
- 1 1/2 tsp. corn starch
- 1/4 c, green onions and parsley, chopped (more for garnish)
- salt, black pepper and a little red (cayenne) pepper to taste (or substitute commercial Cajun seasoning such as Tony Chachere’s)
Season crawfish tails with salt and peppers. In a heavy-bottomed pot, saute onions, bell pepper and celery in the butter, cooking until onions are transparent and golden. Add crawfish and 1 1/2 c. water. Over medium-low heat, bring to a boil and then reduce flame to low simmer, stirring occasionally. for 30 minutes. Dissolve cornstarch in 1/2 c. hot water, stir into pot and return to gentle boil. Add onion tops and parsley and return heat to low for 10 minute simmer. Serve over cooked white rice. Serves 4.
Crawfish Fettucini Casserole
- 3 lbs. crawfish with tail fat (or substitute
- 3 sticks butter
- 2 large onions, diced
- 3 sticks celery, diced
- 2 bell peppers, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced fine
- 4 Tbsp. dried parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon corn starch (dissolved in 1/8 cup hot water)
- 1 pint half and half
- 1 lb. jalepeno jack cheese (or substitute Velveeta for smoother texture)
- 1 pound fine or medium egg noodles (boiled per package directions)
Over medium heat, saute onion in melted butter until transparent, then add celery and bell pepper, stirring occasionally for 4-5 minutes. Add garlic and saute 5 minutes. Add parsley and crawfish then cook additional 10 minutes. Add cheese, cream and corn starch slurry. Boil noodles about 10 minutes. Grease casserole dish with oleo. Mix noodles and crawfish mixture in casserole dish. Top with grated cheese (American or parmesean) if desired. Bake at 350 degrees for 15-30 minutes or until bubbly.