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.