If you want to get any Cajun fired up, just mention boiled crawfish. This delicacy turns the heat up on the Louisiana cooking scene every crawfish season. From home boils to drive-throughs to pop-up restaurants and the addition of market price crawfish to established restaurants, everyone gets in on the action (unless you have a food allergy). While experts disagree over the exact dates of "crawfish season" in South Louisiana, it is generally recognized to last from early February until early June, depending on hard freezes and hot weather, respectively.
Crawfish season peaks around Mother's Day each year, when prices go down and the quality of crawfish is at its peak. Farmers tend to stop selling them when the shells get a darker red and harden, making them more difficult to peel. There are various opinions on whether channel (open water) crawfish or farm-raised crawfish are the way to go, and there are even more opinions on the best method to cook, season, and serve these spicy crustaceans.
In The Beginning
Crawfish gained popularity in South Louisiana as an alternative to red meat, chicken, and pork, all of which are forbidden in devout Catholic homes on specific days of the year, mainly the Fridays that fall between Mardi Gras and Easter. Rice farmers found crawfish to be a very suitable crop to rotate with their rice paddies, as their seasons were deemed compatible with one another. According to Chef Pat Mould on the Louisiana Tourism website, crawfish were originally harvested wild from the waters of the Atchafalaya Basin before becoming a commodity when farmers began flooding rice fields with this seasonal treat to meet demand.
What To Expect When Expecting Crawfish
While debates online rage on about nearly every traditional Cajun food, most debates seem to center around boiled crawfish, gumbo, and boudin (a traditional rice and pork-based sausage popular in Cajun Country). If you haven't ever found yourself yelling out recipes and tips around a 50-gallon pot of boiling, seasoned water over a roaring propane flame, well, can you really call yourself a Cajun?
The common denominators for a successful boil seem to be pre-cleaning or purging the crawfish, getting the portions right, seasoning the water with a special blend of powdered and liquid spices, being cautious not to overcook or undercook the crawfish, and proper service to ensure that the crawfish are steaming hot and easy to peel. Aside of that, the sky seems to be the limit for creativity when it comes to side vegetables, dipping sauces, and finishing touches like lemon, onion, and garlic.
An Expensive Treat
While people from outside of the vicinity of Louisiana may think that boiled crawfish is low-brow food, it is actually a very expensive and supply-driven delicacy. As far west as Austin, Texas, and as far east as Florida, crawfish has experienced a burst in regional southern popularity. At the beginning of the season, prices can be as high as $6-$7 a pound for boiled crawfish, and most of that weight is in the inedible shell that protects the sweet, small tender seafood inside. Towards the end of crawfish season, however, prices become a little more affordable and can be as low as $1.50 a pound in late May and early June.
The next natural question is, "How many pounds of crawfish should I order?" The answer is, it depends on how hungry you are. Because the act of peeling crawfish (which are similar to very small lobsters) can be tedious and laborious for newcomers, many inexperienced crawfish eaters will have a snack before sitting down to peel tails. Experienced fans of the spicy seafood can peel between 5 and 10 pounds in one sitting, resulting in about a pound or two of tail and claw meat, which aside from the crawfish fat, is the only edible portion of the small crustacean. Top that off with the fact that most Cajuns enjoy a side of boiled corn, potatoes, onions, and less traditionally mushrooms, sausage, and exotic vegetables, and you are looking at a true feast fit for the King of Mardi Gras.
You can suck the heads if you prefer a little extra spice in your life, but no matter what they tell you, don't eat the shells.
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