In the pouring rain, with thunder clapping loudly and lightning flashing through the overcast sky, a group of friends gathered under a white plastic tent, hovered around a table covered in newspaper and a mound of bright red crawfish. The sight and smell brought in jealous coos from passersby where were heading out of the flooded New Orleans Fairgrounds on the first day of the 2010 Jazz and Heritage Festival.
This is how I spent a Friday afternoon — at my first-ever crawfish boil. As a California native, I certainly am not used to seeing these little crustaceans around much. But here in New Orleans, they’re everywhere. For many, crawfish season (which joyfully coincides with festival season) is considered the best time of year for New Orleans cuisine.
The previous times I’ve encountered crawfish (called “crawdads” and “crayfish” elsewhere, but are all the same creature), they were either frozen or boiled several hours earlier — and they tasted that way. I was unimpressed, and thought they were too much work for not much meat. I recant my statements after our Jazzfest kick-off boil — they were hot, spicy and succulent. Yes, a lot of work (and messy) but well worth it.
Though there were several Louisiana natives in the group, no one had actually boiled crawfish before, so we brought in some experts. Corey and Rob drove up to Laplace, about an hour from New Orleans, to get three sacks of live crawfish. Each sack ranged from about 30 pounds to 45 pounds and cost $1.25 (in New Orleans, the prices are usually slightly higher).
The crawfish we ate came from the Bell River deep in the bayou, but crawfish can be found in just about any water source that is approximately 2 to 3 feet deep and either still or slow moving, Rob said.
The recipe for cooking them is surprisingly easy, if you have the right tools, namely a 120-quart pot and a heat source.
1 pound of salt
1 pound of Louisiana Crawfish Boil (a powder mix of seasonings and spices like onion and garlic powder, among other ingredients. The mixture varies from company to company.)
1 pound of cayenne pepper
Add these ingredients to 60 to 70 quarts of water (half a pot) and bring to a boil.
Once the water is boiling, add the live crawfish to the water. Reduce the heat and let soak for about an hour.
At our boil, inside the larger pot was a second one, just slightly smaller, with sizable holes around it to allow the juices and seasoning to soak into the crawfish (think of it as a colander for the crawfish). We dumped the crawfish into this colander placed inside the pot of boiling water.
No boil is complete without the accompanying vegetables. It seems that everyone has his or her own favorite recipe, but the essentials are onions, corn, garlic and potatoes.
Because the potatoes take the longest to cook, those are added with the crawfish, and the rest are added later. In our pot, the boilers also put in lemons and oranges to give the crawfish a noticeable citrus flavor that offset the saltiness.
Throughout the soaking hour, Corey and Rob pumped the colander of crawfish and vegetables up and down, each time getting more of the flavoring into the crustaceans.
“As it cools, the crawfish contract and they soak up and hold in the flavor and seasonings as they do so,” said Rob.
After an hour, the batch was dumped onto the table covered with newspaper and we dug in.
As I am pickier than most about eating the guts and brains of crawfish, I took a little extra caution in how I ate them. The first step was to rip the head from the tail (a very easy task), and then pinch the fin from the rest of the tail. The tail holds the best meat, once the legs and shell are peeled away, done in the same way as shrimp. Most tried-and-true Louisianans I know suck the heads of the crawfish, but I have not yet convinced myself to follow suit. Though the process takes some nimble fingers and patience, the meat tastes almost like fresh crabmeat (meaning it’s worth it).
When the crawfish were dumped, the group got quiet, focused on finding the biggest crawfish and cleaning each one before popping the tails in their mouths. The conversation was limited to how they taste. Some said they were too salty; others liked how spicy they were. One partaker remarked on the taste of the citrus.
It was a messy, fun and tasty meal. With crawfish on the table and good friends, the rain and thunder just faded into the background.
Catherine Lyonsis a writer living in New Orleans.
Credits: Catherine Lyons