I have a soft spot in my heart for southern delicacies, and last weekend my brother Eric and I ventured into uncharted territory: étouffée and jambalaya. Eric is an enormously talented cook who just graduated from culinary school, so we weren’t going to do this meal half-assed. We started as authentically as possible: freshly made seafood stock.
And when I say fresh, I mean fresh.
Aha! I saw boxes of live crawfish all over the sidewalks in front of restaurants in Louisiana, but I didn’t realize I could find them in Asian seafood markets in south Seattle. Excellent. We grabbed a bag full of these bad boys (with our bare hands, which was quite the exhilarating experience), along with about a pound of jumbo whole shrimp and we were ready to begin.
Seafood stock is a bit time consuming, and I’ll be frank: it’s not pretty. If you are uncomfortable with shrimp brains all over your hands, and boiling little freaked out creatures a la Chef Louie in Les Poissons, this might not be the ideal activity for you. But hey! I’m squeamish and I did it, because I knew in the end it would be so worth it. Anything for the sake of my jambalaya.
All you need to do is chop a white onion, a few stocks of celery and a carrot or two. Throw those in a stock pot. Add a bay leaf as well. We didn’t put in many spices at all, because this stock is just a base and we would be spicing the hell out of our main dishes.
Now comes the fun part: beheading and peeling your shrimp. Eric swears that the heads and shells/tails must be separated, because the heads will provide a great flavor, and the tails get too strong and make your stock taste like “old canned fish” if you don’t remove them before the stock is finished. I just took his word on that one. We heated up our pot with the heads and vegetables in it.
After this, it’s time to dump in water. Fill the pot about 3/4 full. TIP: We used a perforated insert to boil our shrimp tail shells separately, so we could remove them when the time was right. Way easier than fishing them out later.
While our shrimp gently heated, we went about the even more fun business of crawfish massacre. Eric tried to do it the most humane way possible, by taking a sharp paring knife and cutting them length-wise as quickly as possible, but it still wasn’t pleasant. It’s like they knew what their fates were and they kept running off the cutting board and pinching us.
I won’t get into the whole ethical issue of killing and eating live things, because I’m not deep like that (kidding, but I don’t feel like I’m informed or opinionated enough to make any profound statements). I will say that it was very strange, as someone who happily devours meat and seafood very frequently, to actually kill the thing I was about to eat. Both of us agreed it made us think more about what we were doing, and the food we were creating. It got very “circle of life” in that kitchen for a moment.
We reserved a handful of the crawfish still alive because we wanted to boil them whole, separately, and use them as garnish. After we added our sliced crawfish to the pot, we let it all heat together on medium – not boiling. Then we removed the perforated insert of shrimp tails and let everything else in the bottom of the pot hang out and cook together for a nice, long time while we prepped the rest of our ingredients for our meal. It actually looks quite beautiful:
Once we were ready to use the stock in our recipes, we drained everything out and were left with a big, beautiful pot of steaming seafood stock! My whole family agreed that the base made a huge difference in the flavor of our dishes. Making your own broth is a lot of time and effort, and at times a bit harrowing I suppose, but I am willing to sacrifice for my craft. Plus, I adored our cute crawfish garnishes, if you can swallow the guilt factor, which we were able to.