The best treat of early spring is the mud bug, better known as the crayfish (or, depending upon where you grew up, crawfish). These lobster-like freshwater crustaceans inhabit every continent except Africa. There are more than 250 species in the United States alone.
In size, they range from one inch to Tasmanian giants that weigh more than eight pounds. The prevalent marketing size in the United States is four to six inches.
The peak of the crayfish season is from now through May, when the wild harvest joins the farmed. Louisiana is the leading crayfish-farming state (Breaux Bridge, La., calls itself the Crawfish Capital of the World), harvesting more than 20 million tons per year--of which 16 million are consumed within the state. Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas are also significant producers of farmed crayfish.
The Pacific crayfish is most abundant in the slow-moving rivers of Oregon, followed by Washington and northern California. The Northern crayfish is bountiful in most streams, rivers and lake shallows from Wisconsin to Maine. Northern areas become active as the ice thaws and waters become warm, 30 to 60 days behind the Louisiana peak.
Before cooking live crayfish, soak them in salted water (about one-third cup salt per gallon) for about 10 minutes to remove the sand and grit. Place the live crayfish in a pan, cover with boiling water and set aside for 10 minutes. Drain and let cool enough for handling.
Cleaning is fairly simple. First, remove the bitter gut by grabbing the fanned end of the tail, twisting a half-turn and carefully pulling the fanned tail section to remove with the intestinal tract and gut. Remove the tail from the body and separate the meat from the shell.
Remove the bright orange fat from the head cavity and keep it separate from the meat. The fat is a true luxury--good for adding a pure, rich, crayfish flavor to sauces or for just eating straight. The shells, also great for seasoning sauces and soups, can be frozen for later use.
The total meat yield will range from 14% to 20% of body weight, so pre-cleaned meat is rather expensive. Fresh tail meat with or without the fat is abundant now at better fish or specialty markets. Refrigerate at 35 degrees to 40 degrees. Tails with fat will have a shorter refrigerator life, so use them immediately.
Along with crayfish, the first wild greens provide some of the best eating of spring. As they grow and prepare to flower, they will become bitter and coarse in texture. After flowering, greens will have to be cooked to reduce the bitterness and tenderized to a palatable level.
The dandelion, also called the "tramp with a golden head," has found its way to every continent--and probably to every lawn as well. In France, the plants are mounded with dirt to blanch the leaves golden and delicately tender, a process identical to the growing of white asparagus. The young leaves and crowns are excellent in salads; the unopened buds may be sauteed or fried with flavor similar to mushrooms, and the root resembles the taste of parsnips.
Watercress, introduced by the first settlers of this country, is now found growing wild in every state. The leaves are a favorite but the flowers and little seed pods are also delightful while still tender. The peppery flavor has an unusual cooling and satisfying effect on the palate, a perfect match for some of the other fiery wild greens. Wild watercress is spunky but may transmit impurities from the water in which it grew, so be sure to soak it in clean water with Halazone tablets (available at drugstores) before eating if you are unsure of the water quality.
Mustard greens are a superb treat and have been enjoyed at least since the days of the Roman Empire. Cool weather is essential to slow its maturity; it must be collected while quite small, or the bite of the mature green will have you breathing fire. This is the plant that produces the spicy mustard seed, although in the southern United States there is a relative grown specifically for larger, milder greens rather than the spice seed.
Miner's lettuce, a member of the purslane family, has a bright, tart flavor. The vitamins in its round, broad leaves saved many '49ers from scurvy during the California gold rush.
Lamb's quarters ( not lamb's tongue, a different green that is also known as mache ) is probably the best of the still-wild foraged greens when it's under four inches in height. The leaves are blue-green in color and have a nutty flavor.
The combination of the crayfish and the first greens of spring will recharge the palate. Be sure the tough muscle on the side of the scallop known as the "foot" is removed before cooking.
CRAYFISH CAKES WITH SPRING GREENS
1/4 pound sea scallops, foot removed
1 large egg white
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 cup whipping cream
1 pound crayfish tail meat, cleaned
2 cups bread crumbs