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Crayfish or crawfish? Whatever ... westerners really know how to enjoy them.

Like some Rodney Dangerfield of the crustacean world, crayfish don't always get much respect, certainly not compared with their cousins, shrimp and lobster. In many parts of the world, they're considered a delicacy. Here, the unconverted may scoff that the best way to use a crayfish is as bait.

Granted, they can't get by on their looks. These 10-legged, pincered, eyes-on-stalks bottom dwellers look rather creepy. But once you taste them--in a spicy Cajun stew or dipped into a delicate sauce--you'll understand what all the excitement is about.

You may still be in doubt as to what to call them. In California's Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where these crustaceans make up the state's largest freshwater catch (up to 500,000 pounds per year), fishermen usually call them crayfish. In Texas and Louisiana, where the critter also constitutes a major industry, Southern slang softens the name to crawfish or crawdads.

The harvest is well under way now in Texas; in the Sacramento Delta, the main season runs from May through October. From spring into summer, festivals in California, Texas, and Oregon celebrate this crustacean with silly parades, spicy dishes, and sometimes with hot Cajun music and dancing from the culture that so loves this creature.

The name for the lobsterlike creature derives from the French ecrevisse. According to one fanciful tale, when the French-speaking Acadians (who became Cajuns) were forced from Maritime Canada down to Louisiana, lobsters went with them. Legend says the journey was so long and exhausting that, when the lobsters arrived, they'd lost so much weight they were reduced to crayfish. Regardless of the creature's true origins, Cajuns have used crayfish in spicy dishes ever since their arrival in the South.

And crayfish are catching the fancy of Western cooks. Indeed, crayfish thrive all over the West in freshwater streams, rivers, and lakes. Worldwide, there are more than 500 species of crayfish (existing everywhere but the polar regions). Though there are more kinds here, in the West we commercially harvest just two--the signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus), harvested in the Sacramento Delta and abundant in the wild throughout California, Washington, and Oregon; and the Louisiana red or red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) found in Texas (and some California rice fields and irrigation ditches, where it's considered a pest).

Jeff Skeele, general manager of Jake's Famous Crawfish Restaurant in Portland, explains a key difference. "The Louisiana red crayfish have a slightly muddier taste than the signal crayfish |which don't burrow and do live in cleaner-flowing streams and lakes~. Some Southerners think ours actually taste too clean." Others can't taste any difference.

Once you start looking for crayfish, you'll be surprised how common they are--scuttling about in streams and lakes, hiding under rocks and logs. They're most active at night, feeding on snails, larvae, and tadpoles. They can grow to 7 inches (the Louisiana red is smaller).

Crayfish are easy and fun to catch. The season is year--round, and you may not need a license (check with your state fish and game department). Often you can catch them by hand (watch out for their strong front pincers) or by baiting a hook with cheese, chicken, or bacon. Friends we know go crayfishing by dropping a small crab pot or trap (baited with a can of dog food with holes punched in it) over the side of their houseboat at night; in the morning, they pull the trap up and reap the easy pickings.

Once you taste your crayfish bounty, you'll understand why otherwise intelligent people spend an inordinate amount of time patiently peeling mounds of steaming red crayfish for the tiny morsels each contains.

Enjoying the catch

Whether you catch crayfish or buy them, simply boil them briefly for a delicious hand-on meal. Then serve them hot--or marinate in a spicy bath to enjoy cold. To eat, peel the tails and crack the claws (if large) for morsels of sweet meat (see page 145). If you're daring, suck the body cavity for delicious juices, the green- to gold-colored "butter," and red eggs (in females).

If you don't want to spend time peeling the tails, consider buying peeled, cooked ones to use much like shrimp in recipes.

Crayfish sources

Check your fish market. Many markets can order live crayfish. Some also sell whole cooked crayfish, but freshly cooked live shellfish is far superior. Depending on the season, some markets have a minimum order and may require up to a week's notice. Frozen peeled crayfish tails are more difficult to find; you can substitute shrimp.

Three sources ship crayfish to your home or nearest airport. It usually costs less per pound to order enough for a party. You need at least 1 pound whole live crayfish per serving, more if it constitutes the whole meal.

Bayou-To-Go-Seafood, Inc.,

Box 20104, New Orleans, La. 70141; (800) 541-6610. Live crayfish (November to July 15, 40-pound minimum), cooked seasoned whole crayfish, frozen peeled cooked crayfish tails (5-pound minimum).

Jake's Famous Crawfish and Seafood, Box 97, Clackamas, Ore. 97015; (503) 657-1892. Live crayfish (April to October), frozen cooked whole crayfish, cooked seasoned whole crayfish, frozen peeled cooked tails. No minimum.

Louisiana Cajun Lady, 6355 Scarlett Court, Suite 5, Dublin, Calif. 94568, (800) 982-2586. Frozen cooked whole crayfish (10-pound minimum), frozen peeled cooked crayfish tails (5-pound minimum).

Crayfish recipes

The following recipes for Crayfish with Spicy Court Bouillon and Crayfish Etouffee come from chef Marcel Lahsene, of Jake's famous Crawfish Restaurant in Portland. At Jake's they serve the spicy chilled marinated shellfish in a bowl with the broth accompanied by crusty bread to sop up the juices.

Crayfish with Spicy Court Bouillon

If you don't have a 14- to 16-quart kettle, use an 8- to 12-quart one; half-fill it with water, and cook crayfish in two batches.

3 large (about 1 1/2 lb. total) onions, chopped

1 1/4 pounds celery, chopped

3/4 cup pickling spice

3/4 cup Worcestershire

1/3 cup liquid hot pepper seasoning

1 tablespoon salt

3 tablespoons malt vinegar

3 tablespoons crushed dried hot red chilies

3 tablespoons black peppercorns

3 cinnamon sticks (each about 3 in. long)

About 10 pounds live crayfish

In a 10- to 12-quart pan on high heat, bring 1 1/4 gallons water to a boil with onions, celery, pickling spice, Worcestershire, hot pepper seasoning, salt, vinegar, chilies, peppercorns, and cinnamon sticks. Cover and simmer 30 to 40 minutes.

If pan is not corrosion resistant, transfer mixture to 1 or 2 large noncorrodible containers (at least 12 qt. total). Let spiced broth cool; cover and chill up to 1 day.

Rinse crayfish with cool water. Discard limp ones that don't move; they're dead.

In a 14- to 16-quart pan (such as a canning kettle) over high heat, bring about 2 1/2 gallons of water to a boil. Drop the crayfish into the water. Cover and cook on high heat (boil may not resume) until tail meat is firm and opaque in the center (pull off a tail to test), 7 to 8 minutes. Drain.

Immerse crayfish in pans of chilled, spiced broth. Cover; chill at least 4 hours or up to 1 day, stirring occasionally. Ladle crayfish and broth into wide bowls; or, with a slotted spoon, transfer crayfish to a newspaper-lined table or large platter. Peel crayfish to eat. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Per serving: 114 cal. (8 percent from fat); 13 g protein; 1 g fat (0.2 g sat.); 14 g carbo; 1,146 mg sodium; 76 mg. chol.

Crayfish Etouffee

Serve this spicy stew with hot cooked rice.

1/4 cup salad oil

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup finely diced onion

1/2 cup finely diced celery

1/2 cup each finely diced red and green bell peppers

Spice mixture (recipe follows)

2 cups regular-strength fish or chicken broth

1 pound (3 cups) peeled cooked crayfish tails (thawed, if frozen), or uncooked peeled and deveined medium-size shrimp (43 to 50 per lb.)


Pour oil into a 5- to 6-quart pan on high heat. When oil is hot, add flour all at once; stir until flour turns a dark caramel color, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove roux from heat and, all at once, stir in onion, celery, bell peppers, and spice mixture. Stir open on low heat until vegetables soften slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Stirring, gradually add broth to pan. Cover and simmer until flavors blend, 15 to 20 minutes; stir occasionally.

Add crayfish; stir often until hot, 1 to 2 minutes. (If using shrimp, cook until they are opaque in thickest part, 3 to 4 minutes, cut to test.) Add salt to taste. Serves 4.

Per serving: 355 cal. (41 percent from fat); 31 g protein; 16 g fat (2.3 g sat.); 20 g carbo.; 120 mg sodium; 202 mg chol.

Spice mixture. Combine 2 teaspoons paprika, 1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil leaves, 1 1/4 teaspoons dried thyme leaves, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne, 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper, and 1/2 teaspooon pepper.

Celebrating Crayfish


Napa, April 24 and 25. Cajun Gumbo Ya Ya and Crayfish Festival, Napa Fairgrounds.

Vallejo, May 15 and 16. Crayfish Festival, Vallejo Waterfront.

Roseville, June 12 and 13. The Tardy Mardi Gras, Roseville Fairgrounds.

All of the above festivals have food booths, Cajun music, and dancing lessons. Roseville has a parade. Admission: $7 ages 12 and over. For hours, call (916) 361-1309.

Isleton, June 18, 19, and 20. Isleton Crawdad Festival, on the town's main streets. There are more than a hundred booths, crayfish races, and live music. Free admission. For hours, call (916) 777-5880.


Tualatin, August 14. Tualatin Crawfish Festival. Food booths, crafts, crayfish-eating contest, and parade. Free admission. For hours, call (503) 692-0780.


Bridge City, March 27 and 28. Texas Crawfish and Saltwater Crab Festival. Crayfish races, food booths, crayfish-eating contest, Cajun music, and dancing. Admission: $1,50 cents ages 12 and under. For hours, call (409) 379-3560.

Alvin, April 3. The Rice and Crawfest, National Oak Park. Craft, food booths; rice cook-off; carnival. Free admission. For hours, call (713) 331-1882.

Mauriceville, April 16, 17, and 18. Mauriceville Crawfish Festival, Mauriceville Fairgrounds. Food booths, crayfish races, eating contests, and parade. Admission: $2, 50 cents for students. For hours, call (409) 745-3777.

Old Town Spring, April 30, May 1 and 2. Texas Crawfish Festival, Preservation Park. Cajun food booths, and zydeco, Cajun, and reggae music. Admission is $3, free for ages 12 and under. For hours, call (800) 653-8696.
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Title Annotation:includes recipes
Author:Finnegan, Lora J.; Anusasananan, Linda Lau
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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