Anatomy of a dish: Louisiana Crawfish, Garden Thyme Gnocchi, Lemon, Spring Onions

Monday morning, I was on the phone with one of the crawfish merchants in Louisiana I’ve used from time to time for Big Jones. This time, the occasion was a going-away party for one of our staff, Christa (regular brunchers know Christa) who grew up in Lafayette, LA and enjoys the distinction of being Acadian, aka Cajun. Christa moved to Chicago for piano technology school and has been working weekends at Big Jones to make some money and score the occasional Gumbo crew meal. She’s been a treasured member of our staff, and has finished school, so it’s time to move on to an internship and she’s going out of state. What to do for a Cajun as a send-off for a summer in Massachusetts? In May, it’s most definitely a crawfish boil!

Our bounteous crawfish boil - we ate very well!

While I was on the phone with Tim at Bayou Bounty in Boutte, he mentioned in passing that it was getting near the end of the season. Subconsciously I knew that, but didn’t think much about the remark until the next day, when the crawfish showed up at my door. I realized I hadn’t written diddles about crawfish on my blog and the season only has about a month left. I realized it was time to talk a bit about crawfish, their significance, and list some suppliers you can use to get Louisiana Crawfish at home.

Back in the late 80’s or early 90’s, Chinese crawfish began to enter the American market and the Louisiana crawfish industry hasn’t been the same since. Through the 70’s and 80’s, the business had grown significantly and was a thriving part of the Louisiana rural economy. Some prominent New Orleans chefs, Paul Prudhomme most eminent, did a lot to popularize crawfish by inspiring chefs across the country to work with them, and eventually regular folks started to seek them.

The entry of Chinese crawfish into the market had a two-fold effect: They were very cheap, and the price pressure was immediately felt on Louisiana producers, who simply couldn’t match Chinese prices. Eventually, this would force a lot of LA crawfishermen out of business. In less than ten years, Louisiana’s share of the American crawfish market fell from nearly 100% to less than 30% and the State estimates that 2,000-3,000 seasonal jobs were lost. The situation can only be described as worse now. The actions by importers of the Chinese crawfish were so severe that domestic crawfish producers won a conviction against the Chinese imports for illegal dumping. Given current market conditions, it seems the anti-dumping actions that were taken at one time are no longer in effect, because Chinese tail meat can be had at $6-8 per pound versus $13-16 for Louisiana crawfish. Tariffs or not, if you tasted both, you would quickly conclude that the American crawfish are easily worth twice the price of the imports.

In addition, as the Chinese crawfish flooded the market, crawfish began to lose some popularity. I’m going to guess that it’s because the Chinese crawfish really don’t taste very good, they’re smaller, and have a drier, stringier texture. If that’s your exposure to crawfish, you probably walk away from the experience thinking crawfish aren’t all that.

But try some real Louisiana crawfish! They may be the one food that started me, years ago, down the path of deep Southern cooking. They are close cousins to lobster, and the taste is very similar, but crawfish have a wonderful earthy freshwater taste that distinguishes them from the brininess of lobster. Call me crazy, but I have always preferred great crawfish over lobster. Lobster does have its place – they’re bigger, meatier, and easier to work with, but give me a Louisiana crawfish any day. They’re also a great sustainable option while many of the world’s lobster fisheries are poorly managed and threatened (Maine would be one exception – they do a great job managing their lobster fishery.)

A healthy crawfish can just about tackle a bottle of beer

Crawfish can be caught in the wild, but most are farm-raised in a symbiotic relationship with rice fields, which explains why so much of the Louisiana supply comes from the Atchafalaya basin, one of the largest freshwater floodplains in the U.S., and homeland to some of the world’s most delicious rice. Another one of our favorite suppliers, cajuncrawfish.com, has a great short explanation of the process here.

What I decided to do was share our current crawfish dish with you, it’s an easier one to make at home than many of the dishes I’ve discussed here, and if you decide to use pasta instead of going the nine yards making the gnocchi, it’s actually a really quick dish to pull off if you’re starting with tail meat instead of whole crawfish.

One thing I hope you will do, especially in light of the Deepwater Horizon fiasco, is choose American crawfish. Suppliers you can use via telephone or internet are listed after the recipes. You can also ask your fishmonger for American crawfish. If enough of us ask, maybe a light will go off in their heads.

When I set out to acquire domestic crawfish for Big Jones, you might be surprised that I couldn’t just call any one of Chicago’s venerable fish houses and have them sent out the next day. Not one stocked American crawfish. They all had Chinese. Some were downright uncooperative. The Chinese stuff is cheaper. Blah. End of story. Happily, the Plitt Company was happy to source them for us, taking a risk themselves that we’d be good for the inventory they will be carrying. So, we no longer have to go through the painstaking process of ordering this one item directly from folks a thousand miles away. Plitt takes care of it as part of the regular business they do with us.

At the end of our crawfish hunt amongst local suppliers, I was left thinking that the seafood industry, in spite of its increasingly loud bleating about sustainability, thinks of sustainable seafood in the same way the USDA looks at organic and locally grown food: it’s a niche market. That is to say, we’re not going to do it on the scale we need to in order to actually change our impact on the environment. Chefs will buy it, certain consumers will buy it, but we’ll go on making our real money peddling the same old crap that has our oceans and waterways in the unfortunate circumstances we have them.

Back to the recipe! We have Louisiana crawfish, garden thyme gnocchi, lemon, spring onions. Look to the end for crawfish suppliers. If you can get lemon thyme at the farmer’s market, it’s what we actually use and a truly unique flavor. This recipe will instead use regular garden thyme and lemon zest that are more readily available. For spring onions, look for yellow onions that are just growing bulbs at the bottom, smaller than ping pong balls, with bright, vibrant green tops you can use for garnishing.

For the gnocchi:

  • 3 lbs russet potatoes
  • 3 egg yolks
  • zest of two lemons
  • two tablespoons fresh picked thyme leaves
  • 1 Tablespoon salt
  • 2 cups, approximately, all-purpose flour
  • 1 gallon water with 1/4 cup kosher salt, to cook the gnocchi
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. Scrub potatoes and prick with a handful of small holes using a fork. Bake potatoes until cooked through as for baked potatoes. You can cool the potatoes, but you’ll get better results the hotter you work with them. Wearing kitchen gloves, remove the peels and push the white insides through a ricer into a large, 4-quart mixing bowl. At this stage, the potatoes should be very warm to the touch, but not steaming hot (too hot and they will cook the egg yolks when added. ) Add the egg yolks, lemon zest, thyme, and salt, and gently combine. Add the flour, a bit at a time, working the dough constantly until it forms a ball. Depending on humidity, this could be just under 2 cups or as much as 2-1/2.  Turn the dough onto a floured work board and knead for a minute. It should be tacky, somewhat sticky but not clingy, and firm to the touch. Knead another minute or two, adding more flour if necessary to achieve a firm tacky dough.

Break off dough in 1/2-cup sized handfuls, and work on a floured surface, rolling it out into a long rod the thickness of your thumb. Cut into 1″ lengths, and roll each dumpling along the tines of a fork briefly to impress the dough in order to allow sauce to cling. Repeat until all dough has been turned into dumplings, using flour or cornmeal as necessary to prevent sticking.

Bring the gallon of water and salt to a rolling boil in a large stock pot. Add the dumplings at once, stirring gently. maintain high heat. Return to a boil, and as dumplings float, cook for another 15-20 seconds. Drain into a large colander and run under cold water to stop the cooking. Toss in vegetable oil, place in a shallow dish and cover tightly with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate until needed. Will keep up to one week tightly covered and refrigerated.

For the Citrus Compound Butter:

  • 1 pound unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • rind of one preserved lemon, finely chopped (available in Persian markets, or recipe follows)
  • 2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
  • 2 Tablespoons minced shallot
  • 1 teaspoon fresh tarragon, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon fresh picked thyme leaves
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped chervil
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine all ingredients thoroughly. Roll into a log 1″ in diameter, wrap thoroughly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until needed. Will keep up to two weeks tightly wrapped.

Preserved Lemons:

  • One gallon ziploc bag
  • 16 lemons
  • 16 tablespoons salt
  • 8 bay leaves

Cut each lemon 80% though from one end, turn 1/4 way and cut again into quarters, not quite all the way through so the lemon opens up lengthwise in quarters. Fill each lemon with 1 Tablespoon salt and place into bag. Repeat with all lemons and layer with bay leaves. Seal bag and place in refrigerator for one month. Before using, cut out and discard the flesh and pith, and finely chop the aromatic rind.

To complete the dish for four, as appetizers (double for entree portions):

  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 4 spring onion bulbs, quartered, with green tops reserved for garnish
  • 2 cups cooked gnocchi
  • 8 ounces crawfish tail meat, with head fat
  • salt and black pepper to taste
  • 2 ounces citrus butter
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1-2 ounces heavy whipping cream, if needed.

In a 10″ cast iron skillet, heat the vegetable oil to smoking before adding the onions and gnocchi. Reduce heat to medium high and cook until onions and dumplings are well-seared on all sides. remove pan from heat briefly and allow to cool somewhat. You don’t want to brown the butter when added! Add the crawfish tails and a few slices of compound butter, about two ounces. Return heat to medium/high and saute, tossing constantly, as butter melts and mounts the contents of the pan. If your butter breaks, add a splash of cream. Season with Worcestershire, salt, and pepper. Once mixture reaches 175 degrees, remove from heat and, stirring constantly, plate. Garnish with lots of julienned onion tops.

Crawfish sources:

http://www.cajuncrawfish.com/ easy to navigate site with some convenient hard-to-find grocery options to boot

Crawfish Company of Central Florida lots of other seafood, but be sure they know you want domestic

Critter Runners also great seafood options, but again make sure they know you want domestic

Kyle Leblanc great guy, this is down by Raceland, he can get some deep Cajun Country seafood. Airport delivery only

Bayou Bounty these guys are in Boutte and get great crawfish. they supplied the monsters in these photos!

The Plitt Company if you are looking for wholesale in Chicago, these are the only folks with domestic crawfish at the time of this writing. I extend my thanks to them for working with me to bring Louisiana crawfish to Chicago!

Some crawfish prefer Purple Haze