Lagniappe Ingredients in the Crawfish Boil
Cajun cuisine is described as rustic and resourceful. The methods used in today's crawfish boils clearly reflect the style of cooking during the pioneering days of southwest Louisiana. Large, one-pot dishes were prepared to feed the many family members and friends, locally available staple ingredients helped stretch the meal out, home-grown vegetables were utilized, and upon completion, the meal became a social gathering event. When looking for that perfect crawfish boil recipe, everyone has their own style and there is no right or wrong. Sure, there are essential guidelines when it comes to the crawdads, spices, salt, water, and temperature, but true Cajun fashion dictates that anything goes. This is especially true when it comes to adding all of the extras into the pot.
There are many other regional cuisines that incorporate a social gathering where large quantities of seafood are boiled, baked or steamed alongside other ingredients. We find this up and down the Atlantic coast from New England with lobster and clam bakes on the beach, to the Lowcountry boils and Frogmore stews of Georgia and the Carolinas. While the seafood and seasoning may differ from Cajun crawfish boils, the common practice of adding potatoes, corn on the cob, and smoked sausages is shared. When cooked together with the seafood, vegetables and other meats will pick up the seasonings and flavors found in the main dish that would otherwise be lost. These additions also cost considerably less than the seafood, allowing the whole meal to go a little further.
Many of the crawfish boil recipes you encounter will use whole or cut produce to season the boiling water. These veggies and citrus fruits add layers of flavor in addition to dry or liquid spices. Onions, garlic, celery, lemons, and sometimes oranges are commonly used to add more taste to the pot. Garlic lovers will fight for the tender cloves mixed in with the heaping mound of crawfish. Aside from the garlic, there usually aren't many grabbing for the cut lemons, onions, or other seasoning veggies. Leave it to a clever Cajun to throw some tasty lagniappe lying around the kitchen into the pot. With these additions, it is important to keep a mental timer going and have a general idea of how long they take to cook. Some veggies will take a little longer than the crawfish, while others will be ready soon after they hit the boiling water. Overcooked ingredients can turn to mush or disintegrate in the pot. Since the crawfish are the main ingredient, figure out how long you will be cooking them first, and use that time to gauge the other ingredients. Anything cooking longer than the crawfish should be added before, and anything requiring less time can be added after. If you are unsure of how long something takes to cook, and need to check it periodically for doneness, place the ingredients in one of the plastic mesh bags that bulk produce comes in. This way, everything stays together and is easier to find in your boiling pot. After a few tries you will find what works and what doesn't. Before you know it, you will have come up with your own personal boiling recipe additions. If you are the experimental type, you probably have your basic routine down to a science, and will try a new and different tweak every time.
Anything that is normally steamed, boiled, poached, or uses wet-method cooking is fair game in a crawfish boil. Since these extras cook in boiling water, you probably won't have to worry about them drying out. Ingredients that normally use dry heat methods to cook like baking, roasting and grilling may end up too waterlogged for most tastes. Be creative and resourceful, you may come up with your own Cajun hit. Keep in mind that there are only two heat settings for crawfish boils, off and rolling boil. Delicate ingredients are susceptible to breaking apart or overcooking, so keep some plastic mesh bags around for isolating and containing them in the boil. Professionals have been known to use mesh laundry bags in order to completely control the cooking of their lagniappe additions. In large mesh bags, smaller cut pieces won't fall through the holes of the boiling basket, and different cooking times are easily accommodated. This is usually done before the crawfish are cooked and set aside. For best results when boiling the actual crawfish, the heat is turned off at the desired time, ice is added to cool the water, stopping the cooking process, and the crawdads get an extended, flavor-adding soak in the seasoned water. If the ingredients were added the after the soaking process, the water would need to be reheated.
Potatoes and corn are easy choices because they will stay intact in the pot and are very forgiving when it comes to cooking times. When selecting potatoes to boil, use the small, creamer varieties which are less starchy. (Yukon gold, red, new, etc.)
Mushrooms have become quite popular, as they soak up the seasoned boiling liquid and won't overcook or fall apart. Traditional white button mushrooms are perfect, but experiment with other varieties.
Asparagus, artichokes, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower really absorb the wonderful flavors in a crawfish boil, however these veggies require close attention to cooking time for the best results. You can tell the guy cooking the crawfish had too many beers if there are tiny green broccoli flowers all over the crawfish. Keep these veggies separate from the crawfish in mesh bags for best results. You may want to have your favorite dipping sauce nearby, especially for the phenomenal artichokes.
More adventurous veggies worth trying are bell peppers, baby carrots, okra, pearl onions, green beans, and mirlitons (also called chayote squash or vegetable pear).
Frozen veggies and vegetable mixes work well in crawfish boils, especially if your knife skills after a few beers aren't up to par. If the precut pieces are too small, use the mesh bag trick to keep everything together.
In the meat department, sausages make great additions. Think brats and beer. Try conventional smoked sausages, specialty varieties made from chicken or turkey, and even hot dogs. For something more Cajun, use andouille or boudin. Because boudin contains rice and cooks quickly, keep them separate in a plastic mesh bag, and serve beforehand as an appetizer. It is worth noting that some sausages will render off more fat into the boiling water than others. If the sausages have strong smoke flavors, these tastes will be transferred to the boiling water via the fat.
Even though crawfish don't come from the sea, they are almost always classified as seafood. Since you already have a pot of seasoned water on the fire, why not try some of your other favorites. It is not unheard of to boil crabs or shrimp at a crawfish boil. You should probably cook them in separate batches due to differences in cooking times. For the truly daring, mussels, clams, fish, and even lobster should get a chance in your boil.
Crazy Cajuns, who aren't afraid of anything, may pull out all the stops with raw peanuts. Boiled peanuts are a cultural icon of southern cuisine and are perfect for sharing with your guests before the crawfish are ready. Boiled eggs and certain types of tofu may be worth trying, especially if you have mudbug weary guests or vegetarians in attendance.
The creative fun doesn't end when the crawfish boil ends if there are any leftovers. Peeled crawfish tails have infinite uses in sauces, fillings and toppings. Pizza, pasta, baked potatoes, broiled fish, and anything grilled become show stopping dishes with a handful of fresh crawfish tailmeat or chopped mushrooms on top. Try making mashed potatoes or a potato salad from the crawfish spuds, corn, garlic, sausages, and why not throw in those onions that no one ate. The same goes for pasta salads, egg salads or even deviled eggs. Boiled veggies in morning-after omelettes and quiches will not disappoint anyone, especially if there are crawfish tails or sausages remaining. A real Cajun Bloody Mary with a skewer of garnishes from the boil would be the perfect match for those brunch dishes. Keep the Cajun tradition alive and let nothing go to waste. Most Cajun and Creole dishes begin with a sauté of the "Holy Trinity"; onions, garlic and celery. With a quick chop and a few minutes in some hot oil until golden brown, you'll have a jump start on serious spice and flavor for any recipe.
Remember, anything goes, and don't be afraid to try something new. These are just a few tips and suggestions. For more inspiration on lagniappe additions to your next crawfish boil, take a walk down the aisles of your favorite grocery store.