The shoreline in front of my grandparents’ cabin on Leech Lake was very rocky. As kids, we would take swim goggles and swim along the shore collecting crayfish. I would always ask if someone would cook them for me, but no ever did.
These days, I bring at least one crayfish trap with me every time I go back to the lake. Last week I was up there again for a family vacation. We were staying on a different part of the lake, and I wasn’t sure if there would be crayfish or not, but the dock boy pointed me toward the deeper part of the harbor. I grabbed a couple of fish carcasses from the cleaning house, baited the trap, and threw it in.
My son woke me up the next morning and asked if we could go check the trap. To my surprise, the trap was full of crayfish—many of them bigger than I have ever seen on Leech. I filled my cooler with ice, poured the crayfish into it, baited the trap again, and threw it back in. By the end of the day the trap was full of crayfish again, and I was starting to fill my cooler. (My kids were very excited to catch all those crayfish, and every hour or so would ask if we could go check the trap. It was hard to resist, but I managed to put it off throughout the day.)
After three days of collecting crayfish and putting them on ice, I had enough to boil. (For Minnesota’s crayfish regulations, click here.) Catching and cooking crayfish is a simple process—its after you cook them that the real work begins. Before you cook crayfish, I recommend purging them. The best way I’ve found to do this is to put them on ice. If you fill a cooler with ice and put the crayfish on top of the ice, they can live for several days. During those days, they purge their digestive tracts and you end up with a better tasting product.
After the crayfish have purged themselves you can throw together a boil. That boil can be as simple as salt and water or you can go all out with pre-made boil mixes, potatoes, and corn. I go fairly simple with water, a head of garlic, 1 lemon, salt, bay leaves, and a bottle of beer. If I were going to just eat the tail meat straight, I might do a more interesting boil. But my plain was to cook the tail meat for use in another dish.
The real work with crayfish is peeling them, and depending on how many you have, this might be a task for several people. (I only had about 10 pounds of crayfish to go through and I didn’t want anyone eating them as they peeled, so I opted to peel them all myself.) I ended up with about a pound and a half of tail meat. I debated between making some kind of wild rice and crayfish patty or a more classic crayfish dish: etouffee. I opted for the etouffee but still wanted to use up some of the wild rice I have, so I served the etouffee over a bed of broken soup rice.
1 lb. crayfish tail meat 1 onion, diced 1 green pepper, diced 2 stalks of celery, diced 2 cloves of garlic, minced 2 tablespoons tomato paste 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce 1 tablespoon of your favorite Cajun seasoning blend (I use Tony Chachere’s) 4 cups of Crayfish stock, or chicken stock 6 tablespoons of unsalted butter 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
In a heavy-bottomed pan, melt the butter and add the flour. You are going to make a roux: over medium heat, stir the roux until it darkens to the color of peanut butter (about 20 minutes). Add the onions, celery, and green peppers, stirring to combine. Add the garlic, tomato paste, and Worcestershire. Stir for a couple of minutes. Pour in the stock and the cooked crayfish tail meat. Stir for a few minutes until the roux in well incorporated into the stock and it starts to boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer, and add the Cajun seasoning. Then simmer for about 20 minutes until the etouffee thickens. Serve over wild rice or plain white rice. If you like yours a little hotter, add Crystal hot sauce or your favorite hot sauce.