They’re called crawfish. Or is it a crayfish? Some people even go so far as to call them mudbugs. It just depends on where you live, really. In France, les écrivisses are the height of haute cuisine on many a Michelin-starred menu. Here, under the molting cottonwoods of the Rio Grande valley, we just call them crawdads. Dangle a chicken leg over an irrigation ditch and they'll come skittering towards you, ready for dinner.
Your dinner, that is.
Crawdads are small, freshwater crustaceans. And, like their briny lobster cousins, crawdad tails contain an oyster of sweet, succulent white meat. (Though in lieu of the subtle taste of the sea, crawdads are prized for their slightly gamey flavor.) The trouble is, it takes an awful lot of work to get to it.
The crawdad is a very corporeal creature; lots of little arms and legs to flail about and pinch its potential captors. Even in death, there's something intimidating about them. They look vaguely satanic. To the uninitiated, that's not exactly appetizing.
Most Americans don't like the idea of having to kill their own dinner either. Just last month, Whole Foods announced it had ceased carrying live lobsters. The company cited a “commitment to humane treatment and quality of life for animals" as its reason. Presumably, having someone else do all the dirty work for you--as in the preprocessed frozen lobster and other meat products they still carry--is perfectly humane. (The way I see it, at least the live ones have a fighting chance for escape along the way.)
Don't be scared. If the thought of catching and killing your own is too morbid, you can purchase shelled, frozen crawdad tails from Nantucket Shoals Seafood Market (5415 Academy NE, 821-5787) for about $12 a pound. And if you’re a seasoned ditch jumper, roll your jeans up and start collecting--we're having crawdads for dinner!
People in the swampy parts of the country eat fried, crackling-hot tail meat like popcorn. For a milder rémoulade (or emulsified dipping sauce), substitute white wine vinegar for the distilled.
Serves 6 as an appetizer
For the Crawdads:
Oil for frying
1 pound shelled crawdad tails, thawed if frozen and drained
All-purpose flour seasoned with salt, pepper and crab boil seasoning (such as Old Bay) for dredging
4 cups shredded romaine
2 cups shredded radicchio
For the Rémoulade:
1 1/2 tablespoons drained bottled horseradish
1 1/2 tablespoons Creole mustard or Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons distilled vinegar
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cayenne pepper, to taste
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 scallions, chopped fine
1 celery rib, chopped fine
For the Crawdads:1. In a wide, shallow pot heat 1 1/2 inches of oil to 390°F on a deep-fat thermometer 2. In a bowl, dredge crawdad meat in seasoned flour and shake in a sieve to remove excess flour. Fry meat in batches until golden, about 45 seconds. Transfer fried meat with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.For the Rémoulade:1. In a bowl, whisk together horseradish, mustard, vinegar, paprika, salt and cayenne. Add 1/3 cup of oil in a stream, whisking until emulsified. Stir in scallions and celery. May be made 1 day ahead and kept chilled, covered.
Cajun-Style Crawdad Boil
You’ll know it’s an old-fashioned crawdad boil when your eyes start to water from the Cajun vapors.
Makes 4-6 servings
1 gallon water
2 3-ounce packages crab boil
1/4 cup salt
1/4 cup hot sauce
2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
1 1/2 pounds small red potatoes
6 small onions, peeled
4-6 ears corn, halved
1 bell pepper, coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
1 head garlic, halved
3 large lemons, halved
5 pounds live crawdads, rinsed and purged in salt water
1. In a very large pot, heat water, crab boil, salt, hot sauce and cayenne pepper over a high flame. Once water reaches a rolling boil, add the potatoes, onions, corn, bell pepper, celery and garlic. Reduce heat to simmer and cover. Cook until vegetables are just tender, about 10 minutes.2. Squeeze lemons over the pot, then add lemon remnants and crawdads, and stir to combine. Cover and return to a boil. Cook until shells turn bright red, about 8 minutes. Serve immediately.
North Valley Crawdad Enchiladas
This exceptionally rich dish starts with a southwestern “roux” of bacon fat and corn flour. Though thE recipe suggests rolling the enchiladas, whether you serve yours rolled or stacked is a deeply personal decision that I’ll leave to you.
Makes 4 rolled enchiladas
2 tablespoons lard or bacon fat
1 teaspoon red chile powder
1 cup small diced onion
1/2 cup small diced red pepper
1 tablespoon yellow corn flour
2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup seafood stock
1/4 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/2 pound meat from fresh or frozen crawdad tails
2 tablespoons minced green onions
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Vegetable oil, for softening tortillas
4 small blue corn tortillas
1/2 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese, or crumbled queso fresco
Salsa, for serving
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Heat fat and chile powder in a medium pot over a medium-low flame. Add onion and red pepper. Sweat, stirring frequently, until soft but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add corn flour and stir to combine. Add cream and stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer. Add cheddar cheese and stir to combine. Add crawdad meat and green onion. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside and keep warm.2. Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet. Using tongs, dip each tortilla into the oil to soften. Place tortillas on a paper towel-lined plate to drain.3. Place 1 tortilla in shallow baking dish. Using a slotted spoon, separate a spoonful of the crawdad meat from the sauce. Fill tortilla with mixture, roll and seal. Repeat with remaining tortillas. Pour remaining sauce over rolled enchiladas. Top with Monterey Jack or queso fresco. Transfer to oven and cook until cheese is melted and bubbly, 15 to 20 minutes.4. Remove from oven. Place on a rack to cool and set, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately with salsa.