Like Peter Pan’s Neverland that’s not on any map, crawfish season isn’t exactly on any calendar. Crawfish don’t happen by a scheduled month, hour or minute, but, a bit like the oldtime Cajun people they’ve come to embody, they show up only when they are good and ready.
And then, like right now, it’s crawfish season.
Fact is, since the arrival of crawfish in the swamps (and therefore in our markets) is a function of winter temperatures and rainfall, the dates vary wildly year by year. Some years are great for crawfish, while other years can be lousy. There might be one crawfish season, or several.
Ask anyone you know how to tell if it’s a good year or a bad year for crawfish and they’ll say – check the price. Supply and demand dictate how much crawfish growers, fishers and finders can charger for their bounty. And like so many delicious gifts produced by Mother Nature, however counter-intuitive it sounds, the flavor is best when the price is lowest. If only everything we have to buy in our lives worked that way.
There is something celebratory about crawfish, especially among the Cajuns in places like Lafayette, New Iberia and Opelousas, increasingly as far west as Lake Charles and now into Texas all the way past Beaumont to Houston. For one thing, crawfish tend to grow where rice grows, so the often-flooded rice fields of southeast Texas are perfect for this second crop.
For another thing, thanks to the oil business since the early 20th century, there’s been what we jokingly call a “prisoner exchange” between one Oil Patch and the other. There are simply lots of Louisiana people living in Texas, and more than a few vice versa. Don’t blame us if most of the Texas barbecue joints in the Golden Triangle are owned by guys named Broussard, Arceneaux and Comeaux. You’d better believe such guys love their crawfish as much as their signature, cayenne-red smoked hot links.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the popularity of social crawfish boils when the season is going strong. Though half a century ago, shrimp boils and crab boils seemed to demand equal time in Louisiana – and shrimp at least had actual seasons on the calendar – the crawfish boil with zydeco music playing and ice buckets full of beer has become the international symbol for “Laissez les bon temps roulez.” Even stranger, just about everybody knows what the phrase means.
A quick practical note: For a crawfish boil you need live crawfish, typically sold and brought home squirming about in burlap sacks. Any crawfish that shows up dead is bad news and needs to be tossed immediately. For most prepared crawfish dishes, though, what you want are the peeled tails. These can be found frozen at many supermarkets, preferably from Louisiana but (boo, hiss) sometimes from Asia. And that also means, wonder of wonders, you can in theory find them all year long.
Be sure, once the crawfish are fully thawed in the package, you get every last drop of the yellow-orange “fat” that surrounds them into whatever dish you are making. This is a secret every Cajun cook learns on his or her Mama’s knee. And nobody knows the secret better.
ROASTED PEPPER CRAWFISH ETOUFFEE
All around French-influenced south Louisiana, and especially in the Atchafalaya Basin as you near Texas driving from New Orleans, you know it’s crawfish season when everybody is serving and eating crawfish. Here’s our reasonably traditional version of what has to be the most famous crawfish dish of all, given an extra layer of flavor by the roasted red bell peppers in our sauce.
6 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups chopped onion
½ cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped bell pepper
2 bay leaves
2 ½ cups seafood or vegetable broth
½ cup heavy cream or half and half
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Louisiana hot pepper sauce, if desired
¼ cup chopped parsley
2 pounds frozen crawfish tails with fat, thawed in refrigerator
Cooked white rice
Chopped green onions
Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a heavy skillet or saucepan, stirring in the flour and cooking until the roux becomes the color of peanut butter. Add the onion, celery and bell pepper along with the bay leaves and cook until vegetables are softened. Add broth, Mom’s sauce, cream, Worcestershire sauce, pepper sauce if using and lemon juice, bubbling until the liquid begins to reduce and thicken. Sprinkle with parsley. Add crawfish tails and fat. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, then stir in remaining butter. Serve over rice with green onions for garnish. Serves 8.