Crawfish, Crawdads or Mudbugs, no matter what you call them they are delicious! Hailing from streams and ponds these freshwater crustaceans are synonymous with the American regional cuisine of Louisiana. Immortalized in the lyrics of the song “Jambayala on the Bayou” recorded by Hank Williams in 1952, crawfish are used for dishes such as Crawfish étouffée, Crawfish Boil, Crawfish Dressing, Crawfish Beignets and Crawfish pie, as in the song.
However, long before that, they were cherished in France most notably for the Sauce Nantua. A famous story relating to crawfish is about Chicken Marengo which is said to have been Napoleon’s favorite dish. Chicken Marengo was created by his personal chef Dunand after the victory in June 1800 against the Austrians in Marengo, Italy. According to legend, the chef was having a hard time finding ingredients because the food supply wagons were lost after the battle. He had to search the local area for food and one of the items that he was able to collect from a farm was crawfish. Dunand combined the crawfish with chicken, tomatoes, and other ingredients and served it garnished with fried eggs and called it Chicken Marengo.
Crawfish grow wild in streams and are farm-raised in ponds. When purchased live they need to be cleaned well by letting them sit in a sink of cool water where the water is changed frequently for at least an hour. Agitate the water between changing it so that enough oxygen is available for the crawfish to breathe. When the water is clear after many changes the crawfish are clean and ready to cook. The two ways that I cook crawfish is by sauteeing or cooking them in a court bouillon.
- In the saute method, I start with a hot pan and a little olive oil, then I quickly saute the shallots and finely chopped mirepoix. In the next step, I add the crawfish and then flambe them with brandy and cover them briefly until they are cooked.
- In the court bouillon method, which is the typical way to cook large batches of 25 pounds or more, I boil them in a well-seasoned court bouillon made with mirepoix, wine, herbs and spices, lemon and water.
- After they are cooked in either method I briefly shock them in ice water to stop the carryover cooking and to chill them.
- The final step is to remove the meat from the tails.
This is done in three steps:
- First, twist off the tails from the heads (reserving the heads to make crawfish stock or crawfish butter).
- Then peel off the outer shell from the tail meat leaving the tail shell intact.
- Lastly, pinch the middle of the tail shell and draw out the intestinal tract and remove the tail shell. If it doesn’t come out then pull it out of the cleaned meat from the top (do not wash off the yellow colored “fat” that is attached to the tail meat this adds a lot flavor to any preparation). The tail meat is now ready to be used in any preparation such as the one in the next photo.
After I cooked the crawfish used in this post I prepared this dish as a tasting for the line cooks. It goes well served over rice, pasta or with croustades as an appetizer. To make it I sauteed fine diced onion, celery and bell peppers (known as the trinity in Creole/Cajun cooking) with garlic and some creole spice in olive oil. Then I added a little of the court bouillon that I cooked the crawfish in followed by some chopped tomatoes. After it reduced to thick consistency I added a small amount of cream and then tossed in the tails and finished it with a splash of sherry.
Another way to serve crawfish tails is as a garnish for sauteed salmon with a classic French sauce known as Nantua sauce, named for the city and a lake in eastern France. The classic Nantua sauce is normally served with a dish of fish dumplings made from pike, called Quenelles de Brochet Nantua. To prepare the classic sauce a base sauce of Bechamel is cooked with a small amount of tomato and then finished with a crawfish butter. My version of Nantua sauce starts with a white wine reduction with shallots, thyme, tarragon and a little tomato paste. I then add heavy cream and reduce to a nappe consistency before emulsifying with cold crawfish butter.
To make crawfish butter I begin by roasting the heads to dry them out and then crush them up. After that, I weigh the heads and then melt an equal amount butter to which I add the crushed roasted heads. The next step is to clarify the butter by simmering over low heat. The butter is ready to be strained when it is clear and orange colored. When it is ready I strain it and then chill the clarified butter until it is solid. To finish the sauce, I whisked small pieces of the solid butter into the reduced cream sauce, which creates a butter sauce emulsion that has a rich crawfish flavor.
To prepare the Salmon Mignons Nantua I stem some shiitake mushrooms and then cut them into halves and quarters. I then cut and peel some white and green asparagus tips. Then I cut thin slices of salmon and sprinkle them with chopped herbs (basil, tarragon, and parsley).
In the next step, I rolled up the cut salmon and wrapped them with thin bands of foil that were lightly sprayed with oil so that they would hold their shape when I cooked them. Then I gathered a small amount of the cooked tails to garnish the dish when plating.
To cook the dish I first sear the salmon in a hot pan with olive oil. Then I flip them over and bake them in the oven for few minutes to cook the pinwheels all the way through. After they are cooked I remove them from the pan and hold them warm while I drain off any excess oil. I then add chopped shallots, the asparagus (which I blanched while the salmon was cooking) and the mushrooms. I then add the crawfish tails and a small amount of brandy and then flambee it.
To plate up the two portions I remove the foil bands from the salmon and garnish the plates with the asparagus, shitake mushrooms and crawfish tails, finishing the presentation with the Nantua sauce that I previously prepared. Very tasty!
And with that, as they say in the big easy, Laissez les bon temps rouller!