Etoufee d’ Ecrevissess (or "Mudbug Gravy")
by Ron Williams
I caught crawdads as a kid under the rocks of creeks near Siloam Springs, Arkansas. It was great fun to turn over a rock and see if you could grab a crawdad before it slipped away and not get pinched by its sharp claws. One day, I turned over a log in the creek and, instead of crawdaddies, there was Mama Cottonmouth and 10 million baby water moccasins (or so it seemed). I ran because I could not fly! Anyway, that sort of cooled me down from randomly turning over anything in a creek bed! The first time I was introduced to Crawfish (or "Crayfish") as a delicacy, I was shocked. "Hell, you mean you can eat crawdads?!?!" I was 14 years old when I first walked down Bourbon Street in New Orleans. What I saw through half opened doors shook me up much more than the thought of gulping creek critters! I had seen Sin Incarnate and, just like the preacher said, it sure was temptin’! I still think Popeye’s Chicken franchises should have naked servers to be authentic Cajun….
When I played clawhammer banjo and guitar with the Barbee Brothers (from Soddy, TN) at the 1978 National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap Farm Park near Washington, DC, I got to meet and hear some legendary Cajun and Zydeco musicians. We returned there the following year; and from 1995-1998, the National Folk Festival was held in Chattanooga. I was a stage manager and again got to delight in some of the best Cajun music around. The following two years, as stage manager for the Southern Folk Festival, Cajun music was again a highlight.
The Cajun and Zydeco musicians and their families are some of the nicest folks I’ve ever met. I guess you can be a pretty satisfied group of people with your food is so good that it is put into a song that is almost universally known, "Jambalaya". Old Hank knew what he was singing about, for sure!
Cajun cooking sort of erupted all over the place around 1980. Chef Paul Prudhomme’s signature recipe, "Blackened Redfish" resulted in an orgy of blackening everything (Blackened Foie De Gras, Blackened Tofu, and a lot of Blackened Siding in suburban homes throughout the nation!) Propane suddenly became a required kitchen ingredient! ("Hey, Honey, would you weld these burgers after you fix the front end of the pickup?") Even today, I drove by a Burger King that was advertising some sort of blackened hamburger. Makes you wonder if it’s a marketing strategy to sell all those patties that might have set on the stove too long…. ("Hell, Jed, don’t throw those patties away. Just put some Monterrey Jack and souse ‘em with hot sauce and we’ll say they’re Blackened Backyard Cajun Burgers....") Scary, but all of you readers out there who’ve ever worked in a restaurant have horror stories!
Sandra and I got some sort of travel agency special and stayed in New Orleans (yes, they actually do say "N’awlins" there.) for a weekend in 1985. We ate at Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant, K-Pauls, and it was great, though impossible to finish their huge servings.
Music to listen as you cook, eat, and digest? So many choices! These are among my all-time absolute favorites:
"Don’t Tell Your Mama, Don’t Tell Your Papa" Beau Jaques. From American Oxford Magazine’s 1999 Southern Sampler CD. I’m sure it’s available elsewhere.
"Choupique Two Step" Nathan Abshire. The Good Times Are Killing Me, Swallow LP 6023. This whole album is wonderful!
"Zydeco gris-gris" Beausoleil. Bayou Boogie, Rounder LP 6015.
…..AND ONE OF MY FAVORITE LP’s OF ALL TIME:
Michael Doucet and Cajun Brew, Rounder LP 6017. Hear Cajun version (in French!) of "Louie, Louie", "Wooly Bully", "Hey, Good Lookin’" Aural alcohol!
This recipe is based on Prudhomme’s recipe in Louisiana Kitchens, (published in 1984 by William Morrow & Co.) I’ve changed some things since I never got the right consistency using his recipe. Also, I think Prudhomme goes overboard with the cayenne, oftentimes. This is good eating and pretty easy to cook. The trick is cooking the roux and keeping the thickness of the etouffee right. Etouffee essentially means "covered in gravy", so what we’re making is a crawfish gravy to serve over rice. So the next time you run into a "Tramp Sur La Rue", invite him back to the crib and whup up some mudbug gravy!
In a small bowl, mix up the seasoning: 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp cayenne, 1 tsp black pepper, 1 tsp white pepper, 1 tsp basil, and 1/2tsp thyme.
Go ahead and make the stock. The simplest way is to get some Knorr Fish bullion. In a 2 quart pan, boil 2 cups of water and stir in a bullion cube until dissolved. Turn off the heat.
You’re gonna need some cooked rice, so go ahead now and start making about 4 cups of cooked white rice. I like Basmati. If you buy it buy the 10 lb. sack at your local Indian grocer, it’s about 500% cheaper than buying it the Food Lion, etc.
In your 12 inch cast iron skillet, heat 7 tablespoons of vegetable oil on high for 4 minutes. With a long handled wire whisk, gradually add 1/2 cup of all purpose flour and KEEP STIRRING for 4 more minutes until the roux starts thickening and turn a mahogany brown. Take off the fire and immediately stir in with a wooden spoon, _ each of chopped celery, onions, and green pepper. Add 2/3 of the seasoning mix. Stir constantly until cooled down- about 5 minutes. Drink a beer……
Heat the stock until boiling and dollop by large spoonfuls the roux into the stock. Keep stirring until well mixed, turn the heat to low and cook (while stirring) for a couple of minutes.
While the roux/stock mixture sits, wash out your 12 inch cast iron skillet. You should have already thawed (if frozen) and drained 2 lbs. of crawfish tailmeat. (I get mine at Wal-Mart. It costs about 1/3 that of anywhere else I’ve found. It comes frozen in 1 lb packs.) You might want to save the crawfish "drippings" to use for thinning the etouffee, if needed. Heat the roux/stock mixture back up.
Heat 1 stick of unsalted butter (not margarine) over medium high heat in the skillet. Add the crawfish, the rest of the seasoning mix, and 1 cup of chopped green onions. Cook for a couple of minutes. Carefully, stir the crawfish into the gravy, watching how much of the crawfish/butter liquid is needed to keep the gravy consistency right.
Serve portions over 1/3 cup of cooked rice. (If the gravy is too thin, thicken by adding thumbnail size portions of equal parts softened butter and flour – mixed by hand to the consistency of Play-Doh.) Too thick? Thin with some of the crawfish drippings, or wine, beer, or stock.