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Awake at the Whisk: Crawfish Boil

Monday, June 21, 2010


Crawfish Boil

You don't have to go to New Orleans to have a Crawfish Boil. You can do it with freshly-caught crawfish right here in Sacramento.

I love seafood. I love trying new recipes. So, when I saw the sign for Kelly’s Crawfish at the Sunday farmers’ market, I made a v-line. I had read about crawfish boils. They are always described in happy detail as one of those “must” culinary adventures. Indeed, in the tales I’ve read, the boil seems to be half as much fun as the eating itself.

So, in my quest for the next big food escapade, I traded $7 for a few pounds of wriggling, pinching crawfish. Fisherman Kelly Hutson bestowed a few words of crawfish wisdom upon me as he handed over my fidgeting package. “Add lemongrass,” he suggested.

I took the neon blue bag from him and held my crawfish at arms’ length. “Of course they can’t escape,” I told myself.

As if reading my mind, Kelly tossed one last bit of advice in my direction. “When you get to your car, lay your other groceries on top of them. That will ensure they don’t crawl out,” he said.

Feeling utterly reassured, I made haste to get my little critters safely home to my cool refrigerator. Next, I began researching recipes for what would be my first-ever crawfish boil that night. With two hands, I guided My New Orleans off the bookshelf. Written by James Beard award-winning chef John Besh, this book is more than a cookbook. It’s a storybook for people who love food. Heavy, glossy, and oozing with edible photographs, My New Orleans conveys professionalism with every word, every image, every carefully-chosen recipe. I knew I could not fail with this book as my guide.

Yet, under the recipe for Crawfish Boil, the spice list merely read “1 package Zatarain’s Crab Boil spices.” Nooo! This would never do! Then I read further, “Secrets of the boil: What makes it yours are the ingredients you add.” Okay—so he doesn’t want to reveal his secret spice recipe. The man owns a restaurant. I can understand that. But as I read on, I finally found what I was looking for: “Foundations of the crawfish boil: cayenne, salt, and a mix of coriander, allspice, mustard seed, and black pepper.”

Bingo! Now I was ready! I prepped all my ingredients, fired up the grill, and had my stock simmering as our guests arrived. Within minutes of their arrival, the heady scent of spices lifted through the air. Our tummies rumbled.

“I’m going to check the stock,” I said. As soon as my feet hit the ground, I noticed everyone was following. All the stories I had read were right—a crawfish boil was an event! Eyes peered anxiously over my shoulder as I first lifted the lid to the grill, then the lid to the bubbling pot. “Oohs” and “ahhs” were uttered at the site of mere boiling water as the thickly spiced brew introduced itself to our noses.

Into the water went giant chunks of potato, corn, and carrot. As it boiled, we drank beers, but we were drunk on the smells coming from the grill, growing with force by the minute.

Now it was time for my crawling crawfish to meet their fate. The bag in my fridge was still wriggling. I cracked the seal, poured scampering crustaceans into a metal bowl, lifted the lid to their bubbling cauldron, and zoop!—in they plopped. One push of the spoon to sink them deeper into the watery depths, and clap!—I slammed the lid down, trapping all the heat in with them.

I have never before cooked a live fish. As a little girl, I went fishing on the Mississippi River with my dad, and it was his job to remove all creatures from hook. I never saw them again until they appeared on my dinner plate. Similarly, on my honeymoon several years ago, I went deep sea fishing with my husband, and we landed a giant, gorgeous mahi-mahi. As I dreamed lovingly of fish tacos, I had to look away when the fisherman walloped my mahi on the head. Love fish as much as I do, I get a little squeamish when it comes to the process from fishing line to my plate.
But I digress! I tell you this tale only to give you courage. I’m a big girl now, and as soon as the lid came down on that pot, my next thought was of dinner! And a mere 30 minutes later, I was scooping luscious chunks of veggies and crawfish right onto my plate, eager to dive in with both hands.

In every description I’ve read about crawfish boils, the entire contents of the boil are dumped onto newspaper laid across the table. But, since our bar is brand new, I didn’t want to take any inky chances. Instead, I daintily transferred mine into several large serving platters.

With the first messy bite, I learned why others rave about crawfish boils. The corn, which I thought might turn out mushy from all that boiling, was crisp and gushing with spicy Cajun flavor—no butter, no salt necessary. The potatoes were velvety. And the crawfish… the tails were soft and buttery, while the claws (my favorite!) were sweet and bright. As juice ran down our arms, we licked our fingers, cracked more fish, and stuffed ourselves silly on these farm-fresh delights.

Amber’s Sacramento Crawfish Boil
1 large grapefruit cut into 1/8ths
2 large stalks celery, cut into large chunks
2 large cloves garlic, cut in ½ crosswise
2 ½ large, red onions, quartered
2 Tablespoons each: mustard seed, coriander seed, peppercorns, mild paprika, torn lemongrass, salt
1 Tablespoon allspice
½ Tablespoon each cayenne pepper, rosemary, and fennel seed
4 bay leaves
1 ½ lbs purple potato cut in half
5 ears of corn, shucked and halved
4 small sweet potatoes, whole
2 lbs crawfish
4 carrots cut in large chunks
4 washcloths
Juice from half a lemon

Farmers' Market Fare: garlic, onion, purple potato, corn, sweet potato, crawfish, carrots, lemon
Fresh from My Garden (and my neighbor's tree): grapefruit, lemongrass, rosemary, bay leaves, cayenne pepper, fennel seed
Non-local Supermarket Ingredients: celery, mustard seed, coriander seed, peppercorns, paprika, salt, allspice

Fill your largest soup kettle ½-full of water. Add the grapefruit, celery, garlic, onion, and spices. Bring to a boil on your grill. Reduce heat, cover with a lid, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Now add the potatoes and corn. Return to a boil, and then simmer, covered, for 15 minutes more.

Add the carrots and crawfish, being sure to dunk the fish under the water. Cover and cook for 10 more minutes.

Without removing the lid, turn off the heat and continue to let the crawfish stand in the pot for 20 minutes more.

Strain the liquid. Dump the remaining contents onto newspaper on your picnic table, or be dainty and distribute it among several large platters.

When the meal is finished, submerge clean washcloths in a bowl of very warm water. Add the lemon juice. Squeeze the excess water from each washcloth and place them in a metal bowl with a lid to trap the heat. Hand one to each guest. Their hands will be messy, and they will thank you for this lovely gesture!

Serves 4.

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OMG!! Those are some of the largest crawdads I have ever seen. I grew up in Oklahoma and I remember coming home and having my bathtub filled up with the ones my brother caught out of the pond. we would take them to my grandma's house and she would work her magic and they were delicious.
Quality is better than quantity.................................................................
Some people cannot see the wood for the trees.............................................................

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