Posts Tagged ‘Louisiana’

Peeling Louisiana crawfish

01-Breaking a crawfish apart Crawfish might look like little lobsters, but getting to the meat takes a whole different approach. For starters, a meal of lobster is one lobster. A meal of crawfish contains several dozen. Because they are smaller, the meat in the claws – let alone the legs – is of little consequence. The tail’s the thing. But crawfish, unlike lobster, don’t have a carapace anywhere near big enough to poke your finger through.

02-Crawfish fat When I attended Crawfish College and the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, the first thing I had to learn about crawfish was how to get at those tails so I didn’t go hungry. Fortunately, there’s a time-honored technique that also yields a nice clean tail without the animal’s alimentary tract.

Start by grasping the crawfish with both hands – one on the tail, the other on the main body (as above). Now twist to separate the two sections. This brings you to the existential choice: To suck the heads or to throw them away and move on to the tails. Even some Cajuns think sucking the heads is disgusting. Others enjoy inhaling the briny essence of crawfish. Still others suggest that it depends on how much beer you’ve been drinking.

03-Pulling vein from crawfishThe separated tail will be dabbed with a murky yellow-green mess traditionally called “crawfish fat.” (See the image above on the left.) In fact, it is the liver and has an intense crawfish flavor. It is universally enjoyed. All fans of crawfish agree that when peeling the tails, you need to pinch at the base. As you draw the tail out of the shell, the pressure will capture the digestive tract and pull it out separately from the meat so it can be discarded. (See image on right)

Although the directions sound complicated, they become second nature when you sit down to a special crawfish eating table (below), with a deep well in the middle for boiled crawfish and a funnel to toss down the shells to the garbage can strategically situated below. The whole business goes much faster when accompanied by the spicy Saison d’écrévisses ale from the local Bayou Teche brewery.
04-Peeling table with beer

08

05 2013

What to eat at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival

Cindy Harris of Houston TXWhen it comes to the food vendors at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, the food isn’t all crawfish, but to quote a good friend’s catch phrase, it’s all good. Well, most of it. I’d been given a big buildup from a couple of locals about Cajun pistols or pistolettes, which are buns stuffed with seafood and cheese and then deep-fried. As someone said, “they musta changed the recipe.”

Bon Creole Cindy Harris from Houston, Texas (above) opted for Giant Shrimp on a Stick from the same vendor selling Gator on a Stick (“tender and delicious”). In fairness, I tried the alligator on a stick and found it more tender than most alligator I’ve tried. And, no, it doesn’t taste like chicken. It tastes like alligator.

Food on a stick always does well at outdoor gatherings where few people can get a place to sit. In addition to the shrimp and gator, one vendor had the venerable corn dog (hot dog on a stick dipped in cornmeal batter and deep fried). More popular than all the meat on wooden sticks were the original meat on a stick: both frog’s legs (deep fried) and turkey legs (grilled over charcoal).

Boiled crawfish Having sampled many of the offerings, I will venture the opinion that the best tasting and probably healthiest options were some of the classics: crawfish etouffée on rice, jambalya, and seafood gumbo. (As the T-shirt says, “All creatures great and small taste better in gumbo.”) But this being the Crawfish Festival, my vote goes to the plates of boiled crawfish. (Watch for a future post on the technique for peeling boiled crawfish.)

Trapping deepwater crawfish in the Atchafalaya

Jody Meche with crawfish Jody Meche is a third or fourth generation fisherman who maintains about 1,000 crawfish traps in the Atchafalaya Basin. He also happens to be a member of the Henderson Town Council and a board member of the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion & Research Board. So even if he can clown around with a grimace as he shows off a prize crawfish (above), he has the bona fides to be taken seriously on the subject of crawfish. And he’s not modest — not even a little bit. “My crawfish are the best tasting crawfish in the world,” he proclaims.

Jody Meche dumps crawfish trapHe spent a half day on the Atchafalaya showing some of us in Crawfish College just how deepwater wild fishing is done. Meche fishes a much larger trap than the pond fishermen. His traps stretch 4-5 feet long, which allows the crawfish to crawl to the surface for a sip of air now and then while the trap rests on the bottom.

The landscape where Meche fishes is phenomenally beautiful and productive swamp within the basin. It could be even more productive, he points out, if the powers that be would use the basin for the purpose created by the Army Corps of Engineers – as flood relief. On Thursday morning, there was more than a 20-foot differential between the height of the Mississippi where it can be let into the basin (33, almost 34 feet) and the height of the basin water itself (under 13 and a half feet). To Meche it makes no sense for people all up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to deal with flood water when the river could be lowered by bleeding out some of the water into the Atchafalaya. Another 5-6 feet would restore the basin to its natural heights readily visible as water lines on the embankments.

Jody in the swamp More water would mean a smoother flow and better oxygenation in the basin. It would, in effect, cover up the channeling effects of the spoil banks left behind by oil and gas exploration and pipeline construction. It would also mean bigger and more crawfish. Of course, it would also make the whole basin into an undisputable navigable waterway. That could call into legal question a number of land claims currently providing outside investors with lucrative oil and gas royalties that would otherwise revert to the state. This is all according to some legal views. And litigation runs by Napoleonic code in Louisiana.

Jody's catch in a boilStill, Jody and his nephew Casey Bodoin, running a sister boat, quickly gather two big sacks of crawfish — around 70 pounds. They will make a mighty fine boil come evening. The Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival is about to begin and on the eve of the festivities, all the volunteers who make it happen have a party and picnic on the fairgrounds. We students of Crawfish College are privileged to join, and our crawfish from the trip with Jody Meche are part of the feast. Here Byron Blanchard dumps the just boiled crawfish into a cooler as his son sprinkles them with “swamp dust” – a spice blend that includes salt, paprika, and just a bit of cayenne pepper.

03

05 2013

Growing crawfish in ponds produces them by the ton

Crawfish Clay's pond To begin understanding crawfish, it’s worth starting with the culture and harvest. A lot of the Cajun country crawfish business involves growing them in ”ponds” – really flooded depressions fed with bayou water and held in place with an earthen levee. We went to visit Mike Clay’s pond, where he’s been growing and (after a fashion) breeding crawfish since 1985. Shown above is Mike’s pond, with crawfisherman Robbie Guidry getting ready to make a harvest.

Crawfish Mike ClayIncidentally, Mike, shown here, is also the 2013 Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival king. Crawfish from his pond have also won the festival’s crawfish races for the last dozen years or so. From every haul, Mike selects a few fast movers for training, which is why he has crawfish crawling around on his rubber gloves, as shown below. Crawfish Mike's racers

Crawfishing is deceptively simple. A crawfish trap is a funnel-shaped wire mesh basket into which the fisherman throws bait – in this case half a small fish. Like lobsters, crawfish are scavengers and they will crawl into the trap to feed on the bait, only to find they can’t crawl out. On Clay’s pond the traps are set on twin posts. The fisherman places a trap on a blank post, then hauls the trap on the adjacent post and dumps the crawfish either into buckets or a sorting table. Here’s a photo of Robbie holding up a trap with a few dozen crawfish inside. Crawfish Robbie pulls trap

It’s a monotonous task, but the crawfish pile up quickly. On the sorting table they are cleaned of debris (including the fish bones from the bait) and scooted into sacks that end up weighing 35-40 pounds. The sacks are then covered with wet burlap to keep the crawfish cool through evaporation.

Once they are delivered to a processor, that operation will wash the crawfish with clean fresh water before boiling them for a carefully controlled time and then chilling the cooked crustaceans. Here at CJ Seafood, they then peel the chilled crawfish and package the tail meat in vacuum bags for sale. Like the fishing, peeling is monotonous, but the crawfish peelers who do it work swiftly. For what it’s worth, the staff at CJ Seafood pack about 16,000 pounds (that’s eight tons) of crawfish meat a day. Crawfish peeling

02

05 2013