Louisiana arguably has the most distinct culinary traditions in the country, of which crawfish receives top billing. The sine qua non of many Creole and Cajun dishes, crawfish have been a staple of Louisiana cooking since American Indians introduced the delectable crustaceans to the first French pioneers who set foot in the Mississippi Delta.
Easy to cook in a multitude of ways, crawfish provide a tasty source of low-fat protein.
Crawfish thrive in the southern Louisiana wetland habitat of slow-moving bayous and extensive swamps. They are also farmed in the Bayou State, which produces 130 to 150 million pounds a year with an approximate value of $172 million. North America has more than 330 species of crawfish, but only two are frequently eaten: the red swamp crawfish and the white river crawfish. The red swamp crawfish makes up 70 to 80 percent of the annual catch. They prefer swampy, seasonally flooded wetlands and have firmer, more favorable meat as well as “fat” that gives crawfish their distinctive taste. This fat, which really is not true fat, is a key component of some dishes, like etouffee.
The food culture of Louisiana cooking has roots in many different ethnicities. French, Caribbean, Spanish, Italian, and German are the predominate heritages, reflecting the different immigrants who came to America through the port of New Orleans. Creole cooking evolved through the mixing of these cultures, resulting in a wonderfully tasteful collection of dishes. Creole fare is considered more refined than Cajun cooking. French settlers in Nova Scotia, called Acadia at the time, were forced to leave their farms and settlements by the conquering British in 1755. Many sailed to Louisiana since it was a French colony and resettled in whatever high land they could find outside of New Orleans. These Acadians, later known as Cajuns, brought with them their own food culture, which is hardier farmer-type food than Creole cooking. Crawfish became a main ingredient in both.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Meg Morrison remains true to her heritage with her passion for cooking. “I just love crawfish!” she says. “When I was young, we used to visit relatives in Lafayette, and we would go to Breaux Bridge for the Crawfish Festival.”
For anyone unfamiliar with the culture, Breaux Bridge, which was designated the Crawfish Capital of the World by the Louisiana Legislature in 1959, has held its annual three-day Crawfish Festival since 1960. Meg and Sid, her husband, moved to Columbia more than 30 years ago, but the love of crawfish never waned.
“Not long after moving to Columbia, we had friends over for a crawfish boil and way overestimated the amount of crawfish to cook,” she says. “People struggled with peeling them and didn’t eat as many as we expected. I’ve had much better success with etouffee and crawfish dip.”
Although a few crawfish farms are located in South Carolina, Meg buys her crawfish from Louisiana. “Sometimes you can find crawfish tails in WalMart, but beware — make sure they are from Louisiana and not from the Far East. You can also order them from the Louisiana Crawfish Company based in Natchitoches, Louisiana,” Meg explains.
Whether purchasing crawfish from a local seafood store or catching them yourself, here are a few bayou critter recipes to enjoy.
Meg’s Crawfish Etouffee
Originally a Cajun dish, etouffee dates back to the 1920s and is a spicy vegetable stew usually served with seafood, chicken, or crawfish. Creole varieties add tomatoes. The name comes from the French for “suffocated” due to the crawfish tails being smothered in vegetables. Like gumbo, it is a roux-based dish; roux is a sauce made with flour and oil or butter that adds a hearty thickness to the stew. One of Meg’s favorite recipes, this crowd pleaser will have your guests asking about your Louisiana heritage!
1/2 cup each onions, celery, and green bell peppers, chopped
7 tablespoons vegetable oil
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups basic seafood stock (clam juice or seafood stock concentrate mixed with water)
1 stick butter
2 pounds peeled crawfish tails
1 cup green onions, finely chopped
4 cups hot basic cooked rice
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dried sweet basil leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
Thoroughly combine the seasoning mix ingredients in a small bowl and set aside. In a separate bowl, combine the onions, celery, and bell peppers.
Start by making a roux. In a large heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, heat the oil over high heat until it begins to smoke, about 4 minutes. With a long-handled metal whisk, gradually mix in the flour, stirring until smooth. Continue cooking, whisking constantly until roux is dark red-brown. Be careful not to let it scorch in the pan or splash on your skin. Remove from heat and immediately stir in the vegetables and 1 tablespoon of the seasoning mix with a wooden spoon; continue stirring until cooled, about 5 minutes.
Heat the stock in a separate saucepan. Gradually add the stock to the roux and whisk until thoroughly dissolved. Reduce heat to low and cook until flour taste is gone, about 2 minutes, whisking almost constantly. Remove from heat and set aside. In a separate saucepan, melt 1/2 stick butter over medium heat. Stir in the crawfish tail meat and green onions, then the remaining seasoning mix, and saute about 1 minute, stirring almost constantly. Add the crawfish mixture to the stock mixture, stirring well. Add 1/2 stick butter to enrich sauce and cook about 5 minutes more. Serve immediately over rice. Makes 8 servings.
The etouffee recipe is all about making the roux. Heat oil in a cast-iron pan until it begins to smoke. Gradually add flour to the oil, whisking constantly — the roux will change colors and textures as it cooks. When the roux is dark red-brown, remove pan from the heat and immediately add the vegetables and part of the seasoning mix. Gradually add the heated stock to the roux, whisking constantly.
Meg’s Crawfish Pies with Cornmeal Crust
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) plus 1 tablespoon cold butter
3/8 cup sour cream
Place the flour, cornmeal, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to combine. Add the butter in small pieces and pulse into the dry mix just until coarse pebbles form. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl. By hand, gradually work in the sour cream and 1/4 cup ice water. The dough should be soft and pliable but not sticky. Adjust as necessary with flour or water. Chill the dough for at least 30 minutes or up to a day in advance.
To prepare pies, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Divide the dough into 8 equal parts. Roll each part into a very thin (1/8 inch) round and drape into a 4-ounce tart pan or individual gratin dish. Cover each shell with parchment paper or foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Place the pie shells on a baking sheet and bake for 10 to 12 minutes until lightly golden. Remove the weights or dried beans and bake 1 to 2 minutes longer. Do not let them color too much because they will be baked again with the filling. Let them cool to room temperature.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 small green bell pepper, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
3 scallions, sliced thin
3 tablespoons fresh parsley
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 pound crawfish tails
Salt and pepper to taste
Hot sauce to taste
Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, celery, and bell pepper and saute for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add the garlic, scallions, and parsley and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle the vegetables with the flour and stir. Whisk in the stock, cream, and Worcestershire sauce. Add the crawfish and simmer a few more minutes until the crawfish is warm. Adjust seasonings with salt, pepper, and hot sauce. Cool to room temperature or refrigerate until ready to make pies.
Fill each cooled shell with 3 ounces (about 6 tablespoons) of crawfish filling. Set them on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees F until hot and bubbly, about 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Meg’s Crawfish Dip
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup green onions, finely chopped
1 pound frozen crawfish tails, defrosted
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 ounces canned mushrooms, drained (or equivalent fresh mushrooms sauteed in a little butter)
8 ounces sour cream
Salt & pepper to taste
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Dash of Tabasco, to taste
In a deep saute pan, melt butter. Add chopped green onions and cook for a few minutes. Add flour to make a roux, stirring constantly, cooking long enough to get rid of the floury taste, but before it turns brown. Add crawfish and remaining ingredients. Taste for seasoning; Meg recommends adding a dash or two of Creole seasoning as well. Serve warm with Frito Scoops.
Henry’s Crawfish Jambalaya
This recipe is a longtime favorite of mine and is courtesy of my sister, Ginny Peterson — an excellent Louisiana cook. Jambalaya is a hearty, flavorful meal that derives from the Spanish settlers’ efforts to make paella with tomatoes instead of saffron in the New World. Browning the bacon or ham creates flavorful drippings that then infuse everything else with a zesty flavor when it is all cooked together.
2 pounds sausage
1 slice of ham and/or bacon
1 onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 bunches of green onions, chopped
2 cans tomato sauce
2 pounds crawfish tails
1 clove garlic, chopped and diced
8-ounce can chicken broth
1 pound rice
1 pinch parsley
Brown bacon and/or ham in cast iron pot or large skillet. Remove meat and saute onion, garlic, and bell pepper in drippings. Put the ham and bacon back in, along with all other ingredients. Bring to a low boil and then reduce to simmer; place the top on your pot or skillet and cook for 20 minutes or until rice is ready.