As much as I love the fall, spring is the perfect season of rebirth. If I have said it once, I have said it a million times, I love to get my hands in the dirt, enjoy mowing the tall weeds and anticipate what I will cook from the spring harvests. It is also a time to celebrate winters passing so this year we sprang to life in New Orleans. Bob and I enjoyed this adventure with our dear friends the Zijps, who were experiencing their first visit to this mystical city of the senses. I have travelled to New Orleans several times as it is a place that deserves more than one visit; however, I had never been in the late winter. The weather was perfect (no humidity!) and the population alive without the lunacy of Mardi Gras. However, we did have the pleasurable experience of a ‘practice’ St. Patty’s Day parade – a flash mob street party that was insanely fun. Thank you New Orleans VFD for the Irish kisses and beads!
Because New Orleans is a culinary Mecca, I have written several times about the food here. One highlight of this trip was that crawfish were in season. Years ago, my husband Bob found one on the bank of our property. Because we were in disbelief that this creature could have come from our brackish waters, he took it to the University of Maryland lab here for analysis. Sure enough it was a ‘mud bug’, as the Louisianans affectionately refer to them. Rightly so – they sort of look like a dirty insect. Crawfish look like mini-lobsters to me and have a distinct flavor of their own. Some find them to be a sweet delicacy similar to a cold water lobster – I do not, but their uniqueness deserved writing this post.
Astacology is the study of crayfish…okaaay…in any case they are an anatomically bizarre creature. You might not want to eat them if you were to read about all of their body segments! There are 330 species in North America alone which is probably why we found one on the bank of our shoreline. Crawfish are a freshwater crustacean where some species thrive in the swamps. Rather obvious why they are so abundant in Louisiana. Louisiana is the self-proclaimed crawfish capital of the world. Fact is, as of 1987, Louisiana produced 90% of the world harvest and by 2005 supplied 95% of the crawfish harvested in the US. Pretty impressive statistics if you ask me. Other fun facts are that crawfish come in a variety of colors but turn red when cooked like so many other shellfish. They have eight pairs of legs – four for walking forward and four for swimming backward. Their eyes move independently of each other which indicate to me a survival tactic. Also, even though there are 500 plus species in the world, only two are actually harvested. So perhaps Louisiana has the right to call the state the crawfish capital!
Cambridge, MD has an annual crawfish boil and muskrat stew festival in February. My eyes just rolled. I don’t know where they get the crawfish – probably online as you can purchase cooked crawfish that have been flash frozen. The season for fresh crawfish is not easily defined as harvesting is not regulated. Three factors may help you to decide when to buy them in the South – when they are plentiful/readily available, cheap, and large enough to make the picking effort worth your experience. That being said, those three factors align with Mars from the beginning of March to sometime in June (ha – I was just making sure you were paying attention). Rain and temperatures are really the deciding factors as crawfish need a lot of rain and warmer temperatures to grow.
I adore that the Southern region has a love affair with crawfish and the ‘boil’. The pepper spiked aroma of the cooking process can be identified for blocks. Typically, the crawfish boil consists of piles and piles of boiled crawfish, potatoes and corn on the cob served casually on a picnic table. Eating crawfish is a primal activity much like eating any other shellfish. The messiness of it all is part of the fun experience. You break the head off the crawfish, suck out the juice to impart more flavor into your mouth and pinch the meat out of the tail. A common serving size would be about three pounds of crawfish per person. In New Orleans we ate them in a restaurant with a dining room so they were served in an oblong bowl called a pirogue. Next time we will go to a dive joint for the full experience.
I have no recipes to call my own especially since this last trip was the first time I had eaten crawfish. So I perused my plethora of cookbooks and selected dishes that I would prepare if I lived in the region or that I tasted while on this trip.
Crawfish étouffée is a popular Cajun spicy stew served over rice. The word comes from a French term meaning ‘to smother’. I actually ordered this instead of gumbo – sublime! The following recipe came from The Complete Southern Cookbook.
- 2 lbs. crawfish tails
- 2 tsp. hot sauce
- ½ tsp. red pepper, divided
- ¼ c. canola oil
- ¼ c. all-purpose flour
- 2 celery stalks, chopped
- 2 onions, chopped
- 2 green peppers, seeded and chopped
- ½ c. green onions, chopped
- ¼ c. water
- ½ tsp. salt
- ¼ tsp. black pepper
- ¼ c. fresh parsley, chopped
- 3 c. cooked rice
- Place crawfish in a medium bowl; sprinkle with hot sauce and ¼ tsp. red pepper. Set aside.
- In a large Dutch oven over medium heat, combine oil and flour. Cook, stirring constantly until the roux turns a dark brown, about 10-12 minutes.
- Stir in celery and next 3 ingredients. Cook; stirring constantly until tender, about 5 minutes.
- Add the crawfish and water. Reduce heat to low, stirring occasionally for 15 minutes.
- Add remaining spices and simmer 5 minutes.
- Stir in parsley and serve over hot rice.
Grilled redfish is one of my personal favorites. I will almost always select a dish prepared with fish over meat. When I looked through my The Coastal Living Cookbook, I found the following recipe for an accompaniment to serve with redfish. The actual recipe was one from the previous chef at Bacco, one of the Brennan family restaurants in the French Quarter that closed in 2011. It sounds intoxicating.
Crawfish Maque Choux*
Makes 12 cups
- 16 ears fresh corn
- ¼ c. butter
- 1 large onion, diced
- 3 red bell peppers, diced
- 3 green bell peppers, diced
- 3 jalapeño peppers, diced
- 1-1/2 lbs. frozen crawfish tails**, thawed, rinsed, drained
- ¾ c. whipping cream
- 2-1/2 tsp. Creole seasoning
- ½ tsp. salt
- Cut corn kernels off the cob into a bowl, scrape milk and pulp with a knife.
- Melt butter in a Dutch oven over medium heat; add onion and sauté for 5 minutes until tender.
- Add all peppers and corn, cook, stirring constantly for 10 minutes.
- Stir in remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring often.
- Uncover and simmer 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
*There is no English translation for maque choux. The term choux alone means cabbage in French and choux pastry is what beignets are made of so the term maque choux doesn’t make sense for the name of this recipe.
**I was surprised to see this recipe from a restaurant use frozen crawfish tails but I can only deduce that the chef used fresh tails when in season…or one would hope.
A tourist cannot visit New Orleans without tasting fresh hot beignets coated in powdered sugar from Café Du Monde. It would be like going to Paris and not ordering a croissant fresh out of the oven. In the same cookbook as above, I found an intriguing recipe for crawfish beignets. It sounds more like a version of a hushpuppy which would make sense since the term beignet would be synonymous with fritter in English.
Crawfish-Eggplant Beignets with Rémoulade Sauce
- 2 T. vegetable oil
- 1 med. eggplant, peeled and chopped
- ½ c. onion, chopped
- ¼ c. celery, diced
- 1-1/2 tsp. salt
- ¼ tsp. ground red pepper
- 1 lb. crawfish tails, peeled and coarsely chopped
- Vegetable oil for frying
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1-1/2 c. milk
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- ½ tsp. ground red pepper
- 3 c. all-purpose flour
- Heat 2 T. oil in large skillet over medium-high heat.
- Add eggplant and next 4 ingredients; cook 7 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally.
- Add crawfish, cook 3 minutes.
- Remove from heat and let cool.
- Pour oil to depth of 3 inches in a Dutch oven, heat to 360 degrees.
- Whisk eggs and next 3 ingredients; whisk in flour just until moistened.
- Fold in eggplant mixture.
- Drop batter by heaping tablespoons into hot oil. Fry beignets until golden, turning once, about 3 minutes.
- Drain on paper towels.
- Serve immediately with prepared sauce.
Rémoulade Sauce (I love this sauce – I could literally lap it up with a spoon.)
Makes 1-2/3 cups
- 1 c. mayonnaise
- ½ c. green onions, finely chopped
- 2 T. fresh parsley, chopped
- 2 T. celery, finely chopped
- 2 T. Creole or whole-grain mustard
- 2 T. ketchup
- 1 tsp. paprika
- 1 tsp. hot sauce
- ¼ tsp. fresh ground pepper
- 3 garlic cloves, finely minced
- Whisk together all ingredients.
- Cover and chill 1 hour.
You could also serve this sauce with crawfish cakes. Make the cakes as you would a crab or fish cake with the sauce on the side. Crawfish is also a cheap substitute for lobster or so they say!
Finally, John Madden, NFL player, head coach and sportscaster of football fame reportedly was once served during a Saints game, a tarducken stuffed with crawfish. I am sure it was sublime. Google it if you don’t know what it is and order it!
Please note: personal photographs courtesy of my dear friend Miriam Zijp-Koedijk.