Sunday, August 07, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Louisiana III - What you say? Étouffée!

One of the most iconic ingredients in Cajun cuisine is the crawfish. Call it what you want: crayfish, crawdad, mud bug, little lobster-looking thing. But whatever you call it, don't forget that there's more to them than just the tails.

Official Name: State of Louisiana (French: État de Louisiane; French Creole: Léta de la Lwizyàn - though Louisiana has no official language, French is important to the state's identity, and in 1812 Louisiana was the first state to join the Union whose majority did not speak English. For more on the linguistic history of Louisiana, see here)
State Nicknames: The Bayou State; The Pelican State; The Sugar State
Admission to the US: April 30, 1812 (#18)
Baton Rouge (2nd largest city)
Other Important Cities: New Orleans (largest); Shreveport (3rd largest): Metairie (4th largest)
South; Deep South; Gulf Coast; West South Central (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Gumbo; Cornbread & BBQ
Bordered by: Arkansas (north); Mississippi & the Mississippi River (east); the Gulf of Mexico (southeast and south); Texas (west)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: crawfish (crustacean); milk (drink); alligator (reptile)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: Cajun cuisine and dishes, especially gumbo, jambalaya, courtboullion (COO-bee-yon) and étouffée; pralines; crawfish, shrimp, crab, alligator, catfish; typical Southern foods in the northernmost part of the state.

Outside of Louisiana, it's not terribly easy to find Louisiana crawfish. The best most of us in the US (including much of the South) can do is the variety shipped in from China. Beyond that, there are a few ways to find them:

* pre-cooked and frozen (you can find a pound of them boiled, "Cajun-seasoned" and bagged in the freezer section at Giant for $9 a pound. This would have been my last choice)
* just the tails, frozen (I have seen them this way at the Columbia Harris Teeter, though I cannot remember how much they cost)
* live at your local fishmonger (not too difficult to find in Baltimore or Washington - I got mine at the Maine Avenue Fish Market a few weeks ago, live, for $7 per pound).

Once you get them, what do you do? You can fry them and put 'em in a po'boy, or you can make a gumbo or a jambalaya, perhaps even serve them barbecue style. But regardless, most Louisianans would look on in horror and contempt if you steamed them, much in the same way that most Marylanders would look on in equal horror and contempt if you boiled a crab (we just do not do that in the Chesapeake, but I digress).

But to stay true to how they do things in Louisiana, I bucked up and set to fixin' a crawfish boil, in order to make the following recipe: not a crawfish boil, but a crawfish étouffée. The term "étouffée" means "smothered" in French, and it is one of the more decadent things you will eat from Cajun country. It was one of the deliciously evil things I ate at the Gumbo Shop last November when I visited New Orleans during an academic conference (yes, I've been to the Crescent City twice, and both times it was for academic reasons). It dawned on me during the prep for the Louisiana recipes that I did eat, more or less, most of the things that I ate at the Gumbo Shop, and their $24 Creole dinner: chicken and andouille sausage gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée, and a classic bread pudding that is coming up in a few days. Their étouffée was made with shrimp, but I had crawfish on my mind. I just had to get at the meat and fat first.

Recipe: Crawfish and Shrimp Étouffée

While Terri Pischoff Wuerthner's In a Cajun Kitchen has been my go-to Bible on Cajun cuisine, this time I looked to John T. Edge and his compendium of recipes from throughout the American South, done for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss. The recipe he prints on page 217 of his book A Gracious Plenty: Recipes and Recollections from the American South originally comes from the book Louisiana Legacy, printed by the Thibodaux Service League in Thibodaux, Louisiana.

For this crawfish and shrimp étouffée, I had to cut down Edge's recipe by half. And since I hardly had the amount of crawfish meat or fat that I needed (I don't have a whole lot of money to play with here), I added a good amount of shrimp to bulk up my étouffée.

You do not need a lot of ingredients for your crawfish étouffée. What I ended up with was:

* a pound of crawfish (how much meat will a pound of live crawfish yield? See below. I needed to make up the difference in shrimp, so I still ended up using a pound of crustacean meat. You will be using not just the tails but as much of the meat as possible, as well as the fat in the head portion)

Revenge from beyond the crawfish boil grave

* green onions (sliced)
* parsley (fresh and chopped, from my garden)
* butter (if you don't have enough crawfish to use just the fat)
* salt and pepper (to taste) and cornstarch (in case you want a thicker sauce, as I did)
* rice (usually plain white rice, though you could also use a jambalaya)

Recipe Part 1: Crawfish Boil

The very first step is to boil your crawfish. There is no recipe for boiling just one pound of crawfish - tantamount to steaming three or four blue crabs. The recipes that are out there call for massive amounts of the little critters. The guidelines I used came from the conveniently labeled, with amounts easily adjusted:

Wash off your crawfish, being careful not to let the cute little critters attack you.

I will cut you with my 'ittle claws!!! I wiiiiiiill!!!

While you do this, boil enough water to cover the crawfish - measure this out by putting the crawfish bucket, or in my case the colander in which the crawfish will finish out their little lives, in the crab pot and filling it enough to cover the crawfish. You will need a lot of water, even for an amount as small as mine.

Into the pot, dump the crab boil. I used Chesapeake crab boil (yes, I know, it's strange but it exists; it comes from as far south in the Chesapeake Bay as you can go). You will also add a bit of salt and some cayenne pepper. I also added a few shakes of Old Bay, quite popular throughout the South so it's not exactly strange to see it here.

As you boil the crawfish water, set the crawfish in enough cold water to cover them and add a good amount of salt. This will force them to purge. You can figure out what that means for yourself.

When the water in the crab pot is finally boiling, set the crawfish in the basket and lower it into the water (or in my case, make sure the colander is already in the pot, and then dump the crawfish into the colander). They will die a quick death.

Oh nooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!! also suggests you add sausage and/or various other vegetables. This would make sense for a large scale crawfish boil, but for one pound of crawfish, you will not need this.

Let the crawfish come back to a rolling boil, and then turn off the heat, cover, and let the crawfish absorb everything for 15 minutes.

Let them cool, and prepare to extract all that stuff for your étouffée.

Recipe Part 2: Crawfish and Shrimp Étouffée

If you are dealing with whole crawfish, the next step is to extract two things: the meat - primarily the tails but also whatever claw and leg meat you can get - and the fat. If you pick crabs at all, you know how to get as much meat out of these little legs as possible. Also, if you pick crabs at all, you will probably be able to figure out what crawfish "fat" is - it's analogous to the crab "mustard" that so many of us love. The place to find it in the crawfish is in the head, and so you will need to reach right in there to get it.

How much will you get from a pound of crawfish, allowing for attrition of, say, one or two that died on the way home?

A pound of crawfish, boiled, will yield approximately 1/4 pound - that is, 3 ounces - of meat, if you extract as much meat as possible from the tail, the back and the claws and legs.

A pound of crawfish, boiled, will yield a little under 1/8 cup of crawfish fat. Edge's recipe calls for a whole cup of crawfish fat. Since I didn't even have a quarter cup, I had to add enough unsalted butter to make 1/2 cup of "crawfish and other fat"just to get the halved amount for his half-recipe.

The rest is easy from here. Melt some butter - not the butter you're using to even out the crawfish fat - in a heavy skillet or Dutch oven, and add the green onions. Sauté them for about 15 minutes, and add everything else:

The crawfish, shrimp, crawfish fat and butter...

And the parsley, salt and pepper.

Cover and cook over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve over steamed rice, with lemon wedges if you like.

Your étouffée goes well with a nice Abita.

This dish was as decadent and rich in its taste as those crawfish were tedious in their preparation. It is probably not recommended that you do heavy exercise afterwards (running around kicking a soccer ball for an hour in 90 degree heat, for example, is not a good idea after eating this, as I found out the hard way). You will want to savor this over plain rice, even though you could eat it over flavored rice - again, the jambalaya from the last Louisiana post - because you will want the full flavor and texture of the silky, buttery étouffée to hit you. It was a beautiful thing.

Sources: "How to boil crawfish". Copyright 2005

Edge, John T. A Gracious Plenty: Recipes and Recollections from the American South. An Ellen Rolfes Book. For the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. G. P. Putnam's Sons: New York, 1999.

Fitzsimmons, Tom. "What's the difference between Cajun and Creole Cooking?" Published 2003 on the "Taste Tent" section of the Tabasco Sauce website. Copyright 2011 McIlhenny Company, all rights reserved.

Junior League of Baton Rouge, Inc. River Road Recipes: The Textbook of Louisiana Cuisine [Volume I]. The Junior League of Baton Rouge, Inc: Baton Rouge, 1959. 72nd printing, April 2000.

Pischoff Wuerthner, Terri. In a Cajun Kitchen: Authentic Cajun Recipes and Stories from a Family Farm on the Bayou. St. Martin's Press: New York, 2006.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Louisiana" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Louisiana".