Friday, March 26, 2010
My latest culinary adventure takes me back to somewhat familiar territory, the swamps of southern Louisiana, and to the joy of good company.
With Boston being both a major center for higher education and a hotbed for biotechnology, it comes as no surprise that quite a few friends from my grad school days landed up here along with Mrs. Van Horn and me. Among the old friends are half of my small, close-knit grad school class. I can bump into any of them at any time and things would pick right back up from where they left off, the years since then vanishing in an instant. Needless to say, we get together occasionally and plan to do so in another couple of weeks. Spring is upon us and, when you've been in Houston long enough, that means crawfish season begins. We expatriates have to celebrate.
One of the many culinary influences on Houston that make it such a great restaurant town is that of neighboring, French-influenced Louisiana. Many Cajuns and Creoles have made Houston their home over time and brought their distinctive cooking with them. This would make Houston interesting as an intersection of Southern, Western, Mexican, and French influences even without the more recent influxes of immigrants from around the world. During my time there, I gradually developed a nice gumbo recipe, making it for parties and soliciting criticism from people who knew what it was supposed to taste like. The PI of a lab upstairs from mine would regularly host catered parties around this time of year featuring boiled crawfish.
But how does one celebrate in the arctic wastes of New England? Don't get me wrong: Without my usual indicators of spring, I'm learning to read with anticipation such signs as emerging plant buds and have become a little bit too acquainted with a device known as a "thermometer." And I am becoming familiar with such spectacles as large numbers of people I wish I could have photographed the other day sunning themselves outside when it was scarcely sixty degrees. And some people are wearing shorts already. (Poor, poor, sun-deprived Yankees!) But I digress.
For our class's spring hootenanny, I wanted to make something with crawfish since our hostess -- who first introduced me to Mrs. Van Horn -- is a crawfish fanatic. Also, being on a creative tear in the kitchen, I wanted to come up with a new recipe. I love etouffee and can't get it up here, so there you go.
Not having years to tinker around this time, I turned to the Internet for ideas and, once I got a decent first stab together using locally-available crustaceans, I ordered frozen crawfish tail meat from CajunGrocer.com. The happy result is that I really have here two recipes for the price of one, or perhaps even a decent generalized seafood etouffee recipe.
The below recipe marks the first time I have ever employed a spreadsheet as a cooking implement! Heading over to my favorite Cajun recipe site, I was sure I'd find two or three good recipes, from which I would cobble together something good of my own. This time around, I did know how I wanted it to taste, and had Mrs. Van Horn, a New Orleanian, for feedback. So the problem was only on one end: How do I make it?
Unfortunately, that looked like a big problem at first: I found seventeen recipes at my trusty site, some quite different from each other. To get an "average" of the recipes and to be better able to see which ingredients or techniques might be distinctive for good or ill, I entered each ingredient and amount into a spreadsheet, along with a shorthand characterization of the cooking method used. (Interestingly, I learned that some of the variation was simply in how the red color was achieved.) I based my initial recipe on this average and some variations I thought would work well. Then, using half crab meat and half shrimp tails as an approximation for the crawfish, I made a test batch. All I had to do was bump up the paprika. Perfection in two tries! And yes, I went ahead and ordered tail meat for the second attempt.
This etouffee is great made with crab and shrimp, but divine with crawfish. If you try it, I hope you enjoy it.
Preparation Time is 45 minutes.
Ingredients (List: cre)
celery, 2 stalks
butter, 1 stick
crawfish fat or bacon grease, 2 tbsp
cornstarch, 2 tbsp
garlic, minced, 2 tbsp
catsup, 1 tbsp
paprika, 1 tbsp
salt, 1/2 tsp
pepper, 1/2 tsp
Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning, 1 tbsp
parsley, 2 tbsp
water, 1 cup (for etouffee)
water, 2 cups (for rice)
rice, 1 cup
crawfish tails, pre-cooked, 2 lbs. (See Note 2.)
1. Finely chop onions, bell pepper, and celery. Set aside in a bowl.
2. In parallel with the next step, melt butter and fat at medium heat in a large pot. Stir in cornstarch.
3. Mise en place: the minced garlic and catsup in a bowl; the paprika, salt, pepper, and Tony Chachere's in a small bowl; the parsley in a small bowl; 2 cups of water in small pot for rice; 1 cup rice in small container; 1 cup water for etoufee in measuring cup; and a bottle of olive oil.
4. In parallel with the next step, dump chopped vegetables into pot and saute until onions are translucent.
5. Add a dash of olive oil to the rice and set water for rice to a boil.
6. When water for rice has come to a boil, add rice, stir, return to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover, cooking for 25 minutes.
7. Add remaining ingredients, except the crawfish and parsley, and stir.
8. In parallel with the next step, cover pot, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook for about 20 minutes.
9. If necessary, thaw, but do not drain, crawfish meat. Set aside for next step.
10. Add crawfish tails, stir, and cook for another two minutes.
11. Add parsley, stir, remove pot from heat, and let sit for five minutes.
12. Serve over rice.
1. Interesting serving suggestions include substituting various types of pasta or even toast points for the rice.
2. If lacking crawfish, substitute a pound each of pre-cooked crab meat and shrimp tails.