In Louisiana, crayfish is "crawfish." Don't ask why. It just is. In other places, it's "crawdad."
Crayfish, crawfish, crawdad are words used to describe a family of freshwater decapods that resemble tiny lobsters and are plentiful in Louisiana waterways and sold fresh or frozen.
You don't cook crayfish just for two people. You cook them for a crowd, especially for a Mardi Gras bash, such as the one being held at Orleans restaurant until Fat Tuesday, Feb. 27, the end of the Mardi Gras season.
The main event at many of these celebrations is an "all you can eat crawfish boil," which will give you an excellent idea of just what crayfish mean to Louisianians.
Crayfish was socially unaccepted until 1935, when, some experts say, it was offered at the bar in a levee restaurant called Bernard's near Henderson, La. Before then, crayfish was considered an agricultural pest best consumed at home and never talked about.
Louisianians can't keep their mitts off a kettle of crayfish put before them. Paul Prudhomme, chef of K-Paul's in New Orleans, urges anyone who can't find the seafood in the market to "make friends with a good fish market and create the demand."
Actually, you can go to a good fish market in Los Angeles and order crayfish, which are available fresh or frozen, when in season. Among the markets selling crayfish are Irvine Ranch Markets and Phil's Fish & Poultry stores.
If the crayfish is frozen it will usually be sold in five-pound bags. In some markets blanched and "picked" (peeled) crayfish come in one-pound bags and are packed in ice or frozen. You'll know fresh crayfish if it is sold loose.
Prudhomme, whose cuisine is marked heavily by the use of crawfish, insists that the fish be fresh not frozen, unless freshly frozen. "The oils in the fat, since they freeze poorly, turn rancid quickly and give your crawfish dishes a fishy taste," he writes in "Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen" (William Morrow & Co.: 1984).
If you purchase live crayfish and blanch and peel them yourself, Prudhomme suggests that you save the orange substance (heptopancreas) found in the head and upper part of the tail. Commonly known as crayfish fat, it adds incredible richness to crawfish dishes and "can often be substituted for some or all of the butter in recipes," Prudhomme writes in his description of this orange substance.
If you blanch the crayfish or purchase them preblanched, you need only boil them a few seconds, just until they turn red, to avoid overcooking.
In his "Patout's Cajun Home Cooking,"(Random House: 1986), Alex Patout, owner of Patout's restaurants in New Orleans and West Los Angeles, explains how a crawfish boil is served:
"This is a big, festive party dish. Good Friday is an important holiday for us, and we always plan this for supper that night, which makes it a lot easier to keep the (Lenten) fast. It's a delicacy made for sharing--in fact, in Cajun country, boiling crawfish for only two people counts as a venial sin."
Patout's began its crayfish season last week with a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday crayfish boil plus daily offerings of crayfish etouffe, a dish in which crayfish is sauteed and served over rice.
At West Los Angeles' Orleans restaurant, fresh crayfish flown in from Lousiana appears on the menu from late December to May, the crayfish season. While most of the crayfish comes from Louisiana, crayfish aqua-farmed in Santa Barbara is beginning to widen availability, according to Orleans' owner Jake Ptasznik.
But Mardi Gras is the social high point for crayfish aficionados. That's when hungry hordes come to Orleans to "pinch the tails and suck the heads," as a Louisiana expression goes. At Orleans, the crayfish is served as it is in Louisiana, with chile-flavored mayonnaise and cobs of corn and boiled potatoes.
According to Ptasznik, a South African who fell in love with Cajun cuisine and decided in 1985 to create a Cajun restaurant in Los Angeles, Orleans' Mardi Gras celebration has grown steadily from a three- to an eight-night event.
During crayfish season, tail meat is used to make Cajun popcorn, crayfish tails deep fried in cornmeal batter and served with Sherry sauce. When out of season, restaurants generally use lump crab meat flown from Louisiana to prepare similar dishes.
Here is Orleans' chef Augustino Contreras' recipe for boiled crayfish. The cooking water is bursting with the flavor of red pepper, lemon, onions, corn and potato.
Once done, the crayfish can be sprinkled with a mixture of black, white and red pepper and salt for added flavor, as is done at Patout's, or left plain to served with a garlic-jalapeno mayonnaise, as served at Orleans. Corn and potatoes are served on the side.
Traditionally, crayfish is served with loaves of crusty French bread on a table covered with plenty of paper. Orleans makes good hot pepper rolls to go with crayfish.