Come spring, everywhere else in America is thinking flowers, cherry blossoms, and the end of the winter chill. In New Orleans, the seasons are defined a little differently than everywhere else. Spring, besides being when Jazz Fest comes around, is when crawfish come into season. If you aren’t from Louisiana, the importance of crawfish may be hard to understand, but crawfish boils punctuate every social gathering, from family reunions to weekend barbecues.
If you’re new to the idea of picking crawfish, here are a few things you need to know:
- Although they are sometimes called mudbugs, these savory morsels are not bugs. They’re freshwater crustaceans that look and taste like–and are kin to–small lobsters.
- They’re harvested from bayous, swamps, and marshes and are also farmed in managed ponds.
- Crawfish are good for you–low in calories, fat and saturated fat, and an excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals.
- While crawfish season typically runs from March through June, you can eat them all year. The tail meat is harvested, pre-cooked and frozen, giving chefs the option to make everything from crawfish étouffée to crawfish bread year-round.
- A traditional boil, a mix of crawfish, sausage, Cajun spices, potatoes, and corn, happens only during the season.
- To eat a boiled crawfish, break off the tail, suck the juice out of the head (or not), pull the meat out of the tail, and enjoy. Repeat until you can’t eat any more crawfish.
"I usually figure about three to five pounds [of crawfish] per person when we have a boil," says Alison Vega-Knoll, chef at Station 6, a seafood-centric restaurant she owns with her husband, Drew, in Bucktown, a former fishing village just outside New Orleans. Born and raised in New Orleans, Vega-Knoll hails from a family of fishermen, and the photos around her restaurant tell the tale.
Vega-Knoll puts lots of garlic in her boils, one of her favorite bits to eat along with the crawfish. After all the carnage, when there’s nothing left except corn cobs and crawfish debris, get the funk off your hands with saltines, she adds. "They get the smell off. It really works."
Although most visitors won’t have the opportunity to go to a neighborhood crawfish boil when they’re in New Orleans, don’t be shy if you pass a knot of locals crowded around a huge pot on the street, in City Park or down by Lake Pontchartrain. They’ll be happy to give you a taste.
For those who prefer not to pick at their food, chefs also dish out savory creations that deliver the flavor without the muss. "I like to put a twist on traditional dishes", says Vega-Knoll, who makes a variety of crawfish recipes such as crawfish grillades, a smothered brunch dish usually made with veal or beef and served over grits. Studded with mushrooms and bits of tomato, silky with veal stock, this bowl of savory goodness is served over white cheddar grits, a perfect way to soak up every drop of sauce.
WHERE TO GET YOUR CRAWFISH ON
Crawfish season in New Orleans is an annual happening in neighborhoods and restaurants all over town, and it’s met with an anticipation usually reserved for Mardi Gras. Takeout spots offer crawfish spiced and boiled by the pound, and local bars simmer the popular mudbugs on rotating nights of the week. More refined crawfish eats—everything from crawfish étouffée to gumbo to macaroni and cheese with crawfish—are served at restaurants everywhere.
Big Fisherman Seafood (3301 Magazine Street) is takeout only, a no-frills shop conveniently located on Magazine Street near tons of shopping and bars. Get beers at Breaux Mart next door, and head to the park out back for a picnic.
BOIL Seafood (3340 Magazine Street) is family owned and specializes in Viet-Cajun flavors. Get crawfish and all kinds of other seafood with Vietnamese, Cajun, garlic, or Caribbean spices.
Uptown in Riverbend, Cooter Brown’s (509 South Carrollton Avenue) has been dishing up sports, cold beer and seafood since 1977. Boiled crawfish is served in season—around $10 plus tax for two pounds, including sides.
Cosimo’s (1201 Burgundy Street), a friendly local dive bar in the French Quarter, does weekly Tuesday boils for around $8 per plate.
Harbor Seafood & Oyster Bar (3201 Williams Boulevard, Kenner), situated not far from the airport, has a fresh seafood market on one side and a family-friendly casual restaurant on the other. It’s a great place for fresh oysters and all kinds of boiled seafood at budget prices.
The Maple Leaf (8316 Oak Street) Uptown offers crawfish boils most Sundays courtesy of Seither’s Seafood in Harahan. Maple Leaf is a legendary live music venue, so expect some fine tunes while you pick.
Mid-City Yacht Club (440 South St. Patrick Street) hosts $6-a-plate boils most Fridays during the season. There is a wide selection of beers on tap and in the can, ideal for pairing with these spicy bites.
North Broad Seafood (1901 North Broad Street) is a grab-and-go family-owned store that does great boiled seafood along with gumbo, red beans, and po-boys.
R Bar (1431 Royal Street), a popular Marigny watering hole steps from Frenchmen Street, boils crawfish most Fridays at no charge, but tipping the chef is a must.
Schaefer & Rusich Seafood (1726 Lake Avenue) is Vega-Knoll’s go-to for crawfish, close to her restaurant and home in Bucktown. Serving locals seafood for more than 50 years, this is a strictly takeaway spot.
- 2 pounds crawfish tails
- ¼ pound butter
- ¼ cup blended oil
- 4 cups white onion, finely diced
- 2 cups celery, finely diced
- 2 cups bell pepper, finely diced
- 2 ½ pounds cremini mushrooms, quartered
- ½ cup brandy
- ¼ cup flour
- 1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, chopped
- 2 cups veal stock
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon salt
- ½ tablespoon black pepper
- ½ tablespoon Tabasco
In a large pot over medium-high heat, add oil and butter. When the pan is hot, add onion, celery, bell pepper, mushrooms, and garlic, and cook until translucent. Deglaze with brandy. Add flour and combine. Cover the pot for five minutes until vegetables are tender. Add Worcestershire sauce, tomatoes, Tabasco, tarragon, bay leaves, veal stock, and chicken stock. Reduce by half. Add crawfish tails to warm through. Serve over white cheddar grits, and top with more fresh tarragon.
White Cheddar Grits
- 4 cups whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup water
- ¼ pound butter
- 1 ½ cups grits
- 2 ½ ounces cream cheese
- 1 cup white cheddar cheese, grated
In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, add milk, cream and butter. Bring to a simmer. Whisk in the grits, stirring frequently until tender. Fold in cream cheese and white cheddar cheese. Season with salt to taste.
Recipes courtesy of Chef Alison Vega-Knoll, Station 6 Seafood & Oyster Bar