Good news: this year promises to be a great one for crawfish. The problems caused by the storm are past, the populations of crawfish are strong, the rain has been falling where and when it will be best for the crustaceans, and we're getting boiled and live crawfish earlier than usual.
The best thing and the worst thing about crawfish is the same thing: its seasonality. The good part is that when crawfish come into season after being gone for months, there's cause for celebration. We remember how good they are to eat in big piles, just boiled and hot. We remember all the good times we've had in the past eating crawfish. It's the same effect Christmas has.
However, the marketing side of crawfish doesn't like its here-today, gone-tomorrow seasons. They want the stuff on menus all the time. Why? Because people--especially tourists--order it.
Besides that, a host of dishes with crabmeat or shrimp in the sauce can be made with the much cheaper crawfish. So they are, by restaurateurs whose pencils are as sharp as their palates are dull.
So we get crawfish at times of year when crawfish are not very good. Or inferior Chinese crawfish, which bear the additional stigma of being frozen. (Shrimp freeze well, but crawfish do not.)
If all the crawfish out there were fresh Louisiana bugs at the peak of the season, crawfish would rank eight or nine places higher on this countdown.
But no higher. The taste of crawfish is more subtle than is widely believed. It's not as distinctive as shrimp. Not as rich as crabmeat. Not as delicate as lobster. It does come into its own only with the assistance of crab boil, cream, or a good dark roux with the trinity sauteed in.
On the other hand, if you make a stock from crawfish shells, you have something. Some of the best soups and sauces I've ever eaten had crawfish stock at their hearts.
The finest crawfish dish of them all is crawfish bisque--if it's made the old, rustic way. That's with dark roux instead of cream as a base, an intense crawfish stock, lots of whole tails, and balls of crawfish stuffing added at the table.
Crawfish etouffee is almost as good. One of the best aspects of the dish is that, like gumbo, no two versions are alike. Most of them are great when made well with good crawfish. The spicy, dark etouffee at K-Paul's and the mild, light-roux etouffee at the Bon Ton couldn't differ more, but they're both terrific.
Of all the truths about crawfish, the one that rings loudest is this: if the crawfish you are about to eat have shrunk to a size that will fit on your thumbnail, you are about to eat Rubber Eraser Stew. But that's what happens in a lot of dishes I find with crawfish around here. The things are much more delicate than most chefs assume. We ought to treat them with more respect: cooking them with great care, and eating them only when fresh, in season, and local.
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