It's mudbug season; here's where to buy crawfish and how to cook them

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

Spring is crawfish season in the South. The creature some refer to as “crayfish” and others call "mudbugs," is most frequently referred to as a “crawfish."

Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food says the term was coined sometime in the 19th century, most likely a derivation of “crayfish,” but with a twist based on the crawfish’s tendency to scoot along.

Regardless of what you call crawdads, this seasonal specialty is certainly party-worthy, and we could all use a little more of that right now. Here are some ways to source and cook your crawfish.

The sources

Here's where to find crawfish and the ingredients you'll need to cook them. Cook live crawfish as you would any seafood boil (we've provided a recipe below). Crawfish tails are great in pastas and rice dishes. You'll find two recipes, one traditional, one not, below.

Louisiana Crawfish Company: This company ships live mudbugs anywhere in the U.S. The selection of specialty foods is extensive, and includes Fresh Gulf seafood, spices, prepared gumbos and even King Cake. www.lacrawfish.com

Poche’s Market and Smokehouse: Founded in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana in 1962, Poche’s Market and Smokehouse specializes in cured and smoked Cajun meats. Perhaps most famous is its andouille sausage, but Tasso ham, stuffed pork and spiced Creole are also available for shipping. www.pochesmarket.com

Acadia Crawfish Co.: Ships live crawfish and other seafood sourced from environmentally sustainable farms to your table. You can buy anything from two ounces of crawfish dip to 30 pounds of live mudbugs. www.acadiacrawfish.com.

Cajun Grocer: This Louisiana-based company is a home away from home for people who crave authentic Cajun and Creole ingredients. Expect live and frozen crawfish and thousands of other Creole favorites, from spice blends to Turducken. www.cajungrocer.com

The recipes

More:Prize-winning 'Mosquito Supper Club' cookbook honors a Cajun village in peril

Melissa M. Martin's cookbook “Mosquito Supper Club” documents Chauvin, Louisiana, the Cajun village where she grew up. The International Association of Culinary Professionals recently named “Mosquito Supper Club” as both the American cookbook of the year and the overall cookbook of the year. This recipe for étouffée was reprinted from the book with permission:

Crawfish Étouffée

In French, étouffer means “to smother.” An étouffée looks like a stew. It is thicker than a gumbo; it’s eaten with a bit more rice than a gumbo, and it has a concentrated shellfish taste. It is sweet, with a touch of acid from the tomatoes, and so buttery. The crawfish give this étouffée a deep, rich profile, but not so rich that you can’t have a second bowl.

My favorite étouffée is from Kay Brandhurst, a fisherman’s wife who sells shrimp at the Crescent City Farmers Market. She suspends crawfish and in-season Creole tomatoes in butter, and it is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. My version, a nod to Kay and her mean kitchen skills, uses a roux and crawfish stock to deepen the flavor.

Serves: 6 to 8

Total time: 3 hours

Ingredients

1 pound (4 sticks/455 g) unsalted butter

2 pounds (910 g) yellow onions, diced

1½ pounds (680 g) ripe tomatoes

¼ cup (30 g) diced green bell pepper

¼ cup (30 g) diced celery

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

½ cup (65 g) all-purpose flour

4 cups (1 L) crawfish stock (see below) or chicken stock

4 pounds (1.8 kg) crawfish tails, with fat (see Note)

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

½ teaspoon cracked black pepper, plus more as needed

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus more as needed

2 tablespoons hot sauce, preferably Original Louisiana Hot Sauce, plus more as needed

Cooked rice, for serving

¼ cup (13 g) finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

¼ cup (20 g) finely chopped green onions, for garnish

Instructions

Warm a 15-quart (14 L) heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat for 3 minutes, then add the butter. When it has melted, add the onions and cook, stirring often, until soft and translucent, about 35 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, stir, and reduce the heat to low. Cover and let the vegetables smother together for 30 minutes or until the tomatoes are completely broken down. Add the bell pepper, celery, and garlic and stir. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes more, until the vegetables are very soft, with no bite remaining. Add the flour and whisk until completely incorporated.

"Mosquito Supper Club" by Melissa M. Martin

Add the stock and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 45 minutes. If you have crawfish heads from a boil, you can add them while simmering down the stock for extra flavor.

Put the crawfish tails and any fat from the bag in a large bowl and season with the salt, black pepper, cayenne, and hot sauce. Add the tails to the pot and stir to combine. Cook over low heat until the crawfish is heated through, about 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve the étouffée over rice, garnished with the parsley and green onions.

Note: If you’re buying precooked crawfish tails, look for a package labeled “with fat” or “fat-on.” If you’re using home-boiled tails, make sure you reserve the heads, and throw some into the pot when simmering. You can serve them with the heads or remove them before serving.

Shrimp or Crawfish Stock

For this stock, you add the heads of shrimp or crawfish in the last couple hours (rather than start with them as you do with chicken). You wait until the vegetables have developed flavor, then add the heads. The heads can’t cook all day like chicken bones or beef bones; they start to break down, so you really just want to simmer them for a couple hours.

Makes 1 gallon (4 L)

Ingredients

3 pounds (1.35 kg) crawfish heads

3 pounds (1.35 kg) yellow onions, coarsely chopped

3 celery stalks, coarsely chopped

2 green bell peppers, coarsely chopped

Stems from 1 bunch parsley

1 bay leaf 

Pinch of kosher salt

Instructions

Start with all the vegetables in a stockpot, cover them with water, and bring to a boil. Let simmer for 2 hours so the stock develops full flavor, then add the crawfish heads if you’re making crawfish stock or shrimp heads if you’re making shrimp stock. Simmer the heads in the stock for another 1½ to 2 hours over low heat. You want to draw all the flavor out of the heads but not get to the point that the shells are starting to break down into the stock.

Excerpted from Mosquito Supper Club by Melissa Martin (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2019.

Buttery, rich Southern seafood boil 

Classic seafood boil.

This seafood boil from recipe developer and content creator Rosalynn Daniels starts with Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning, a whole head of garlic, beer, bay leaves and Zatarain's Concentrated Crawfish, Shrimp & Crab Boil.

When it’s time to serve, drain the liquid, transfer your boil to a large tray or serving dish, and drizzle everything in the spicy, seasoned butter for the ultimate family-style meal.

You can substitute live crawfish for some or all of the seafood in this recipe, pound for pound. 

Serves: 4-6 people

Ingredients

16 ounces beer (any style)

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning, divided

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon smoked paprika, divided

2 teaspoons Zatarain’s Concentrated Crawfish, Shrimp & Crab Boil, divided

4 bay leaves

12 red potatoes, halved

4 lemons, sliced in quarters

1 head garlic, halved

2 pounds Zatarain’s Andouille Smoked Sausage or another already cooked sausage, sliced into quarters

6 ears of corn, quartered (husks and silks removed)

2 pounds large raw shrimp, unpeeled

2 pounds snow crab legs or whole blue crabs

2 pounds butter (8 sticks)

1 cup minced garlic

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons lemon pepper seasoning

2 teaspoons onion powder

Instructions

Fill a large stockpot halfway with water and bring to a boil.

Add the beer, ¾ cup Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning, ¼ cup smoked paprika, 1 ½ teaspoons Zatarain’s Concentrated Crawfish, Shrimp & Crab Boil, bay leaves, red potatoes, lemons, and halved head of garlic. Bring the mixture back up to a boil, then add the Andouille and turn the heat down to medium and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are slightly tender.

Add corn to the stockpot and cook for 5 minutes. Add the shrimp and crab (or crawfish) to the stockpot and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes, or until the seafood is fully cooked.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the minced garlic and cook until the butter begins to caramelize. Stir in the brown sugar, lemon pepper seasoning, 2 tablespoons Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning, 1 tablespoon smoked paprika, onion powder, and ½ teaspoon Zatarain’s Concentrated Crawfish, Shrimp & Crab Boil.

Simmer on low until you’re ready to serve the seafood boil.

Drain the liquid from the stockpot and serve your seafood boil immediately. Drizzle with the butter sauce or use it as a dip.

Crawfish pho

Shrimp and Crawfish Pho

Pho is a Vietnamese broth-based soup, usually featuring thinly sliced beef or meatballs. Here, it gets a Big Easy makeover with shrimp and crawfish. Normally discarded, shrimp shells pack an amazing briny punch and act as a base flavor for the broth. Once prepared, the broth can be strained and refrigerated for up to three days, and frozen for up to three months. After straining, use the hot broth to poach the seafood before adding the remaining garnishes.

When cooking with lemongrass, use the thicker, white part of the stalk, as the top can be overly woody and fibrous. Many supermarkets carry a lemongrass paste in a tube, which would also be a fine substitute. If you can’t find either of those, just use the peels from two lemons.

Serves: 6

Hands-On Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes

Ingredients

8 cups water

2 cups chicken broth

2 pounds large shrimp (preferably head-on), peeled and deveined with shells reserved

1 yellow onion, diced

2 poblano peppers, seeded and diced

6 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

2 tablespoons finely chopped lemongrass (see note)

3 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons soy sauce

Juice of 1 lime, plus 2 limes, cut into wedges, for serving

1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds

1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce

1 (8-ounce) package rice noodles

1 pound frozen crawfish tails, thawed

2 (0.75-ounce) packages fresh basil, leaves only

5 scallions, thinly sliced

2 jalapeño peppers, very thinly sliced

Instructions

In a large stockpot, bring the water, broth, shrimp shells, onion, poblanos, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice, coriander seeds and Sriracha to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cook, skimming away any foam that floats to the surface, for 1 hour. Strain the broth through a mesh strainer into a separate pot.

Return the broth to a simmer over medium heat. Add the rice noodles and cook for 3 minutes. Add the peeled shrimp and crawfish and cook until the shrimp have just turned opaque, 3 to 4 minutes. Ladle the broth, noodles and seafood into serving bowls and top with the basil leaves, scallions and jalapeños. Serve hot with the lime wedges.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com