It was only a couple of weeks ago that I had my first taste of crawfish in the 2015 season. Since then I have powered through a plethora of plates in bars, restaurants, driveways and even a poolside patio. And I am just getting started. I have the mudbug fever so bad I actually bought a new cooker the other day to replace the stolen gem I had long ago.
Crawfish season always seems to hit the Port City with a bang and then disappears with a whimper, so I do my best to make the most of it when I can. By midsummer they will have lost their luster, but that doesn’t mean I would turn one down. I am a head-sucking, tail-pinching, exoskeleton-tossing machine who can eat his weight in these shellfish and walk a straight line afterward.
Since the season is upon us I thought it best to discuss what makes a successful boil and why certain practices should or should not be used when cooking crawfish. Whether a seasoned pro or a true amateur, cooking crawfish is indeed cooking, and rarely would a recipe remain the same for decades. Everything must evolve, but we must begin somewhere.
There are three different types of crab boil and I’ve used all three with great results. You just need to find your favorite and follow directions. Don’t go “maverick” and think you are going to make it better by eyeballing some part of it. You have to pay attention to the salt portion of the recipe. Bottled crab boil requires salt, as does the bag boil. Read closely. There is only one thing worse than not having enough salt in the boil, and that is having too much. This is easy to do with the powdered boil, as it already has salt in the container. Make sure you have enough water.
Your personal style of boil will come out later when you choose your additives. Before we discuss that we must be certain to get the “must haves” into our pot. No matter your tastes it isn’t a boil without these ingredients: lemons, potatoes, corn and onions.
Lemons are a must for any seafood or freshwater fish. In the crawfish world it is no different. Lemon halves are added at the beginning. Imagine walking through the French Market and the way it smells. Now think about sucking on a lemon. It makes that aroma come alive! This is one of my favorite scents ever.
Potatoes soak up flavor better than anything I can think of. Most of us use new potatoes or halved red potatoes, but feel free to experiment. Forget them and your pot may be a bit salty. The potatoes take the longest to cook, so naturally they have to be added at the beginning. Onions draw up a good bit of heat and salt as well. Peel the outer skin but keep the little fuzzy end intact. This helps hold it together.
Corn will be added later to prevent it from falling apart. The “when” depends on whether the ears are fresh or from the frozen food section. Fresh corn will take a bit longer, but you’ll know it’s done when those kernels start to separate and plump.
There is but one rule. We want the crawfish alive when we cook them. I remember the days of filling up a washtub with our sacks of mudbugs and salting the water to purge them. There is a problem with doing that. Saltwater can kill a crawfish. The best route is a cooler with a drain and a hose full of fresh water washing the dirt off.
I’ve noticed this year there are a lot of small ones, smaller than I’ve ever seen make it to the pot. I’m a medium guy. The big ones aren’t nearly as good and the small ones are not worth the effort. Find your favorite dealer and stick to them.
Here is where your personality comes into play. The sky is the limit, but let’s be reasonable. Extras are my favorite part of a crawfish boil. A head of garlic cut in half is a favorite. The boil trades off the bitterness and sweetens each clove. Cabbage was a huge additive for a while until a genius added Brussels sprouts. Those bite size cabbages are my favorite. Button mushrooms can be tossed in by the handfuls. Cauliflower is a hot ticket item these days and may be boiled as an entire head minus the leaves.
Why stop at veggies? Meats are important, too. You can’t do a boil here without Conecuh or Hall’s sausage, but if you ever eat a Nathan’s hot dog from a crawfish boil you will never want a dog any other way. Turkey necks seem an odd choice to some, but to me and my pal David Rasp they seem like a delicacy.
Fruit was a strange addition for me, but once I tried it I was pleased. Different juices went into some of the more hoity-toity boils. But large chunks of fresh pineapple seemed to be the preferred method to counteract the heat. Oranges aren’t as good as lemons, but they aren’t bad.
I am of the camp that wants to please the guests at my table. I love spicy food. I love over-the-top dishes. But I never want my crawfish to be overly spicy. There has to be a line you shouldn’t cross. Focus on flavor rather than heat and you will come out a winner every time. Cloves and black pepper are often neglected but add a nice touch without too much heat.
It’s a communal thing. Getting together with friends over a few beers and enjoying mudbugs may be one of the best parts of dining in the South. It brings us all closer together. After all, whoever heard of boiling crawfish alone?