Our children grew up in Louisiana, and now they all live in California.They still love authentic Creole and Cajun cooking, but it is definitely hard to come by in the Golden State. For the last several years, my son and his wife have tried to change that. Every spring – crawfish season – they have a backyard crawfish boil for their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and their families. As is usual with crawfish boils, it has become a bigger and bigger production each year.
As an aside, there is a strict Louisiana terminology for the crustaceans: crayfish are what you dissect in high school biology classes; crawdads are what you catch for fishing expeditions; crawfish are what you eat. Often the experience of the boil participants becomes evident depending upon what they call the main dish. In Louisiana, mudbug is a perfectly acceptable alternative term, but in other places, the name causes a bit of squeamishness.
In preparation for the party, my son has consulted one of friends from Louisiana known for his crawfish cooking skills. Peter has read lots of recipes in cookbooks and online. Most importantly, he has identified a reputable and reliable source for authentic Louisiana mudbugs. Then, there is the ordering process to make certain that the crawfish are shipped at the right time and arrive as scheduled so that they are still lively. Crawfish season starts during the winter months. Then, the critters are small but with soft shells. By now, almost the end of the season, the crawfish are much bigger, but their shells are often hard enough that novice eaters have problems getting to the succulent tail meat.
When the date of the party is set, my son places his order with Louisiana Crawfish Company in Natchitoches, LA. The crawfish cost from $3.50 to $6.00 a pound depending upon size and quality and how many you order. (Crawfish cost 89 cents a pound for our first crawfish boil 40 years ago.) At this point, the key question is always how many should you order? For a novice crowd, allow 1 pound per person. For crawfish fans, allow 2 pounds per person. For aficionados (just about everyone in Louisiana) allow 5 pounds per person. Remember, if there are leftovers – unlikely – you can harvest the tail meat and freeze it for crawfish étoufée at some later time. Of course, there are overnight shipment expenses, so the cost for crawfish for an average-sized party will run to close to $300.
The next step is to plan the rest of the menu. There are some absolutely necessary items: ice-cold beer, corn on the cob, new potatoes, onions, ice-cold beer, and ice-cold beer. Then there are optionals: something to eat while you wait for the crawfish to cook, bread or corn bread, coleslaw, watermelon, and desserts. Guests usually volunteer to bring a dessert. By all means, take them up on their offer.
There are certain equipment requirements for a successful boil. You will need a large plastic or galvanized tub to purge the crawfish before you cook them. A high temperature propane burner will get the water boiling as quickly as possible. You also need to have a very sturdy stand that will hold a very heavy pot of water. The largest cooking pot and lid that you can find – 50 gallons is common – will let you cook a good-sized batch at one time. Find a canoe paddle for stirring the pot. You will need a large strainer with handle in order to scoop out the crawfish and vegetables when they are cooked. A table covered with newspapers will hold a batch of food for guests to get to. With a genteel group, paper plates should be in abundance. For serious crawfish eaters, cardboard flats of the sort you get with cases of beer work better.
STARTING THE BOIL
Remember, it takes a lot of heat and a long time to bring 30-40 gallons of water to the boil, so start this step several hours before you plan on eating. If the water boils too soon, you can always turn the temperature down for a time. Light the fire on the burner and adjust it to a hot flame. Be sure to have enough propane. There is nothing worse than running out of propane in the midst of a boil. Fill the cooking pot with water from your garden hose. You will probably need two people to lift the pot; one gallon of water weighs 8.35 pounds. Season the water with enough salt to taste briny – a cup or two should be enough. Add two lemons cut in half. Drop in two bags of Zatarain’s Crawfish and Crab Boil. If you can’t find the bags, a bottle of the liquid variety should be enough. If you want, you can add some paprika and chile powder. With most orders, Louisiana Crawfish Company will include a container of their Creole seasoning. It is really not necessary to add any more seasoning to the water, because you’ll be sprinkling on the cooked crawfish.
PURGING THE CRAWFISH
The crawfish will arrive in large sacks with lots of ice packed around them. Since they are cold-blooded, the crawfish will be alive but not very lively. You need to wake them up in a tub of water to which you have added a goodly amount of salt – half a box should be enough. The salt will cause the crawfish to empty their alimentary tract, so the water will become very dirty looking. You can drain the water and do a second treatment until the water clears, but be sure to drain the water as the crawfish will die if left in the water. Pick out any crawfish that float to the surface of the water, as they have most likely died in transit. Alton Brown declares that there are better ways to accomplish this step, but hey, he’s from Georgia and not a real Cajun.
While the water is heating and crawfish are purging, prepare the vegetables that will cook with the crawfish. Remove the husks and silks of fresh ears of corn. Break each ear in half. Allow 1 to 2 ears per guest. If necessary, scrub baseball-sized red potatoes. If you can only find larger potatoes, cut them in half. Allow 1 to 3 potatoes for each guest. Remove the outer husk from golf ball to baseball sized onions. Allow 1 to 2 onions for each guest.
The water must be at a full boil when you are ready to cook. Add the onions and potatoes first, as they will take the longest to cook. After about 15 minutes, add crawfish and corn. Add enough that the guests already in line can get several. From time to time, stir the pot with your paddle. When you think the crawfish are done, around 15 minutes (just to be sure, the cook usually samples from time to time), snag one and test for doneness. When everything is cooked, use your strainer to retrieve everything and dup it out on the newspaper-covered table. Sprinkle with chile powder or Creole seasoning. Then encourage folks to help themselves while you get ready for your next batch. If you want, you can increase the spiciness of subsequent batches by adding chile powder or Creole seasoning as you start each batch. This is often a good idea if not everyone likes spicy crawfish, so by this technique, the first batches are not as spicy, and they get spicier as time goes on, to go with the ice-cold beer.
HOW TO EAT A CRAWFISH
Eating your first crawfish is a little intimidating, especially if you have never had instruction. It’s actually very easy: just pull the crawfish apart at the joint between the body and the tail; then pry open the first ring of the tail shell with your thumbnail, squeeze the tail fan firmly between the thumb and index finger of your other hand; and the tail meat will slide into your waiting mouth. The process is not always that easy and smooth, but with a little practice you will be eating crawfish as fast as you can pull them apart,
More advanced eaters relish the little morsel of fat that stays in the thorax shell and will “suck the head” to extract the tasty treat.
In preparing a crawfish boil, you will wind up using a lot of heavily salted water. Never empty the leftover water on the lawn or in your flower beds or you will wind up with a yellow spot in the grass or dead peonies.
As to the shells, it is a good idea to station plastic-lined garbage cans around the yard. Then, when the party is over, you can just tie up the bags and dispose of them. Be aware that there is nothing that smells as bad as day-old crawfish bodies, so dispose of them as quickly as you can. They do not make good compost.