A Cajun dish that's disapearing
By DALE CURRY
If someone were to ask what the most difficult dish I ever cooked was, I would say without hesitation, �crawfish bisque.� Notably, I have prepared this dish only twice in my lifetime, yet I can recall with equal clarity that it was the most delicious thing I ever put in my mouth.
This could explain the great fear of cooks when hurricanes threatened the river parishes and bayou country back when ice and generators were hard to come by. It often took days to restore power after a storm. The problem: the loss of priceless containers of crawfish bisque that took days or weeks to prepare and were lovingly stored in freezers like jewels in a safe-deposit box.
Out in the country, before crawfish were popular in New Orleans, crawfishing in the swamplands was as commonplace as crabbing in the bayous or hanging a fishing line in any body of water in south Louisiana. Some crawfishermen wore hip boots to protect themselves from snakes, and seines (nets) were used to scoop up the crawfish from their shallow estuaries. Back then, crawfish had a distinct season, about three months, around Carnival time. In the last couple of decades, crawfish farming has expanded the period of production to between January and June.
Wading into the canals that connected the rice fields was exciting for the young Paul Prudhomme, who grew up in Opelousas. The big crawfish boil that led to the making of crawfish bisque �was almost like the wedding night. It was one of the best parties of the year,� the chef recalls. Prudhomme, his father and brothers would haul in 300 to 400 pounds of crawfish and boil them that night, serving them with homemade beer. The next day the heads and shells were boiled for stock, and the children got the job of stuffing the shells, or heads, with a mixture made from homemade bread and crawfish tails. �Back then, crawfish were bigger,� Prudhomme says. �It was easy to stuff the shells and fun.�
But as time goes by, crawfish bisque is nearly a lost art of Cajun cooking. �I haven�t heard anybody in five years say anything about it,� Prudhomme said. �It�s a good time to start preserving our dishes.�
The availability of peeled crawfish tails, whether dug from the bayous of Louisiana or imported from China (controversial but cheaper), puts the prospect of preparing crawfish bisque within reach and reason of the busy but adventurous cook. You don�t have to boil them yourself. Just save the outer shells from any crawfish boil and buy your peeled crawfish tails at the store.
But if you are among the fearless Louisiana cooks (and there are multitudes) who shuck their own oysters and fry their own turkeys, then by all means start with a 40-pound sack of live crawfish. Start the dish with a pot filled with unseasoned boiling water and plunge about half the crawfish at a time into the water for 10 minutes only. This kills them and makes them peelable. When they are cool enough to handle, peel them, reserving as much fat as possible. Save the large center tails for stuffing. Depending on how many people are peeling, you may want to do this one day and make the bisque the next day.
A word of warning: Do not attempt to peel a 40-pound sack of crawfish late in the season (after April). I did this once when the crawfish were more mature and their shells harder and thicker, and my hands were scarred for a week. Early in the season, the shells are tender and much easier to handle. And, having tackled this job on two occasions with only one other person peeling, I recommend involving at least four people.
One of the saddest food stories I ever heard was of a woman in her ninth month who got that wave of energy some women experience late in pregnancy. She took it upon herself to make crawfish bisque from scratch. The filled freezer containers were on the kitchen counter cooling when her labor pains began. The last thing she said to her husband before entering the delivery room was, �Don�t forget to put the crawfish bisque in the freezer.� But, alas, the details were too much for an expectant father to remember and when the subject came up again, the highly temporal delicacy had perished and had to be thrown away. The final warning: Don�t make crawfish bisque when very pregnant.
Another note about making crawfish bisque: A highly important ingredient for the authentic version of bisque is crawfish fat. There may be a few seafood stores still selling containers of it, but it would be a rare find indeed. Instead, you can buy packages of crawfish tails with fat. I actually stripped the fat from the heads I cleaned for stuffing and came up with half a cup, which I divided between the bisque and stuffing. It was well worth the effort, but I admit to being bone tired when I went to bed that night. That�s why it�s best to make this a fun project and involve several people. Then have your dinner party the next day when you are refreshed and can enjoy it.
3 pounds crawfish tails, preferably Louisiana
tails, with fat
80 crawfish shells (also called heads), saved
from a crawfish boil, cleaned
2 large onions, divided
2 bell peppers, divided
4 cloves garlic, divided
1 cup flour
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 3/4 teaspoons salt, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper, divided
1/3 cup water
Extra crawfish fat, about 1/2 cup (optional)
1/2 cup bread crumbs, made in a food
processor from stale French bread
4 tablespoons green onion tops, divided
4 tablespoons parsley, divided
1 tablespoon butter, softened
Flour for coating
6 cups stock-and-water combination
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon thyme leaves
Divide crawfish tails in half. In a food processor, chop half for bisque and mince (grind consistency) the other half for the stuffing. Boil cleaned shells in water to cover for 10 minutes. Strain and save water for stock.
Prepare the vegetables in a food processor, chopping 1 onion, 1 bell pepper and 2 cloves garlic for the bisque and mincing 1 onion, 1 bell pepper and 2 cloves garlic for the stuffing.
In a heavy pot, make a medium-dark roux (peanut-butter colored) with oil and flour. Set aside.
To make the stuffed heads: In a heavy pot, sauté the minced vegetables in 1/3 cup of roux. Add the ground tails, about 3/4 teaspoon each of salt and cayenne pepper and about 1/3 cup of water. If you have extra crawfish fat, add half of it at this point. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add bread crumbs and 2 tablespoons each of minced onion tops and parsley. When combined well, add softened butter. Stuff mixture into shells. Roll shells lightly in flour, place on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350° for about 15 minutes. Turn once during baking. Set aside.
To make the bisque, sauté the chopped vegetables in the remainder of the roux. Gradually add 6 cups stock and water if needed, the tomato paste, bay leaves and thyme and simmer for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, place half the remaining crawfish in the food processor and mince. Add this and the chopped crawfish, 1 teaspoon salt and 3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper and cook 15 more minutes. Add 2 tablespoons each of chopped green onion tops and parsley. When ready to serve, add stuffed heads and warm. Serve hot in bowls with rice and about 6 to 8 stuffed heads per serving. Serves 8. �