To try Regina's recipe for crawfish étouffée, in which the shellfish are cooked in butter and light roux, click here.
Crawfish and rice are as perfect of a match on the plate as they are in the wet fields of Louisiana. Rice farming in Louisiana has been going on for generations, and the farmers always knew that the native crawfish thrived in their artificial bodies of water each year.
Since crawfish live well on decomposing plant matter, there is very little to farming them in these fields. If the farmers did not use all the crawfish themselves, they would sometimes sell them, and after a while they figured out that they could use their existing land, equipment, and workers to farm crawfish as a rotating crop. This has become a substantial industry, with 74 million pounds coming from farms compared to 8 million coming from the wild, mostly the Atchafalaya River Basin. Even with the farming of these Southern delicacies, there still are not enough to meet demand, and they continue to be a coveted seasonal treat.
When the season begins, everyone seems to crave the classic crawfish boil: whole crawfish boiled with potatoes, sweet corn, onion, lemon, and an abundance of Zatarain's crab boil seasoning. I have tired of this tradition of burned lips and fingers blistered from peeling these hard-shelled creatures. It is hard to go through this ritual more than twice during the spring before the work seems to outweigh the pleasure. I quickly turn to one-pound packages of fresh crawfish tail meat, no matter what the cost, as long as they are Louisiana crawfish.
Of all the ways to prepare crawfish, there are few who would disagree that étouffée over rice is about the best way to truly embrace crawfish season ... Étouffée is the best of the best. The French word "étouffée" means "smothered" or "suffocated." Smothered is quite accurate when describing this pure and simple dish of crawfish drowning in butter.
I remember my great aunt, Corrine Trosclair, telling me that étouffée was made from wilting the vegetables in butter to smother the crawfish meat. My recollection—admittedly, now slightly faded—of being in her kitchen while she was making crawfish tells me that there were lots of green onions, a little celery, bell pepper, and yellow onion, all minced fine and simmering in her large cast-iron pot with the smell of browning butter. She added a bit of flour, but I do not remember a traditional dark roux. I also remember the importance of the bright yellow "fat" from the crawfish as a key ingredient. I remember minced parsley from her garden, and I am sure there was a little garlic, but not an overpowering amount. The butter and the crawfish is what seemed to compliment the rice.
I have made étouffée many times, and I admit that I have often added a touch of dark roux and a small amount of tomato paste to balance the roux. I am not sure where this came from. It may have been that when I lived in San Francisco I had access to only frozen crawfish tails and I needed to help the flavor. As I am thinking about this, there is no comparing the taste of étouffée on Court Street in Opelousas, Louisiana to the crawfish I prepared on Geary Street in San Francisco.
Crawfish are as versatile as crab or shrimp, and there are many great recipes. I have made beignets swimming in a sauce of crawfish and mushrooms, a recipe that remains one of the most popular dishes at Biscuits and Blues here in Natchez. Crawfish chowder is always a favorite, whether it is has pieces of bacon, kernels of corn, and diced potato in a cream base or is more like a classic lobster bisque. There are crawfish hushpuppies, crawfish cornbread, and crawfish-stuffed red snapper, and crawfish and corn over pasta with jalapeño and lime zest is light and summery. There seems to be a pattern here of crawfish and corn, another great combination, like the best combination of crawfish and rice. Jambalaya and gumbo are both excellent vehicles for crawfish.
My father made the best crawfish bisque I have ever had, and now that he is gone, my cousin Joe Fred Gouchaux carries on the tradition. Daddy's bisque was not a cream-based bisque but a Creole bisque with dark roux, tomato, onions, celery, and bell pepper enhanced greatly by crawfish shells with a seasoned crawfish stuffing, which floated in his savory tomato bisque filled with crawfish tail meat.
Our house was only one block from St. Mary's Catholic school, where in 1970 all nine of us children were in school: my sister Ree, the oldest, was a senior in high school, and Ellen, the youngest, was in kindergarten. If you can even imagine, my mother had nine children in 12 years. Not only would we all walk home together but also many friends would end up at our house. My father was in the oil business, but he also owned a bakery and delicatessen with a wonderful baker, Mr. Lebeau, all the day-old pastries would end up at our house: éclairs, cream puffs, napoleons, almond crescents, and doughnuts with every filling. Needless to say, we were quite the popular house after school.
One day we came home and there was a huge pot of Daddy's crawfish bisque sitting on our big commercial stove, obviously for dinner guests expected at our home that evening. Several of my friends and I (old enough to know better) could not resist, and we fished out all the stuffed crawfish shells and ate them. My father was known for his "bark," always worse than his bite. Well, we heard the thunderous words of discontent ... all the way on Union Street, one block over. I cannot remember if we confessed or not. There are advantages to having that many brothers and sisters: often others were blamed before you had a chance to come forward.