Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Two Sides of the Coin: Crawfish Tails with Fennel-Mint Mignonette & Crawfish Bisque

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A good dinner party is contingent on a number of factors; the right mix of people, decent music, extra wine glasses, and, of course, the right menu.

That being said, a great dinner party only comes once in a while, and the factors for that are quite unpredictable. While I can't guarantee that these two dishes will ensure a great party breaks out, I can promise that they'll have your guests still talking about dinner long after the dishes are done.

Indeed, today we have two dishes, an amuse bouche and a soup course, designed to follow each other in rapid succession. While they both use the same primary ingredient -- and, more importantly, the second uses the discarded elements of the first -- they could not be more different in texture, flavor profile, or presentation. This is high-end food made with a lowly ingredient; if you pay more than four or five dollars a pound for your crawfish, you're not getting it from the right place.

Crawfish with Fennel-Mint Mignonette
Serves four people

12 small or 8 medium Crawfish (about 1 pound), whole

1/2 Cup Shallots, minced
1/2 Cup Fennel, minced
2 Tablespoons White Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Teaspoon Sugar
1 Teaspoon Kosher Salt
Black Pepper (to taste)

1 Tablespoon Mint, minced, not optional
Crawfish Bisque
Serves four people

12 small or 8 medium Crawfish shells, left over from above recipe
1/2 Cup Dry White Wine
1 Teaspoon Bourbon
1 Cup Heavy Cream

2 Tablespoons Butter, unsalted
3 Tablespoons Flour

Salt and Pepper (to taste)

Scallions or Chives (optional, as garnish)

(Editor's Note: First things first -- are you using fresh crawfish or are you buying cooked? While buying raw is nice, cooked crawfish will save you a little time, and, frankly, you won't miss too much. Anyway, the point is this -- you may have a hard enough time finding crawfish, so don't let only having one or another hold you back.)

If you have raw crawfish, boil them in three cups of lightly salted water until just cooked and pink. Saving the water from the pot -- you'll need it for the soup. Plunge the cooked crawfish into ice water and chill until the meat is cold.

Once everything's chilled down, it's time to separate the tail meat from the body. Use your knife to loosen the tail and then pull it off. Peel the meat out from the tails and keep it close at hand. Reserve the tail shells and the rest of the bodies for the soup.

Meanwhile, on another cutting board, mince up your mint. The mint is a critical ingredient -- it adds the perfect balance against the sweet meat and the salty/sour salad. Place this to the side.

Mince up your fennel and shallots as tiny as you possibly can get them. If you don't trust your knife skills (or if you have dull knives), toss both into the food processor and pulse until you achieve a similar consistency. Be judicious if using the processor; remember, you want this minced, not pureed. Transfer the fennel and shallots to a mixing bowl.

Add in your vinegar, olive oil, sugar, and salt. Add a few cracks of black paper and taste. Adjust salt, then taste again.

At this point, it's time to assemble the final dish. Using stainless-steel or porcelain soup spoons, build the amuse-bouche in layers. Start by placing two to four tails on the bottom, add a layer of fennel-shallot salad, and then top with a pinch of mint. You should be able to eat the entire thing in one large bite. Set your spoons in the fridge on a plate, until ready to serve, one to a guest.

The bisque is even easier. Remember all those heads and shells and nasty bits that were left from the above recipe? Even if you bought cooked crawfish, you should still have lots of cooked shell and brain and guts that you haven't used. That nasty orange stuff leaking from the head? That's where the flavor is.

If you still have your cooking water from before, toss the leftover shells and heads into it and bring everything up to a rolling simmer. If you bought cooked crawfish, get a pot, fill it with three cups of water, toss the shells in, and get that simmering. Cook for about 15 minutes; the water should turn cloudy and vaguely coral colored, and your kitchen will fill with the fresh smell of the ocean. Mmm, briny.

While that's simmering, take two tablespoons of butter out of the fridge and let it warm up. Once it's soft, you'll want to combine it with the three tablespoons of flour, squishing it into a paste with your fingers; this is commonly known as a roux.

Take your crawfish broth and run it through a mesh strainer, catching all the little bits of shell. Next, give your pot a quick rinse, put the strained broth back in it, and bring it back up to a simmer. Add in your wine (we used this) and bourbon. You can also use brandy (which is traditional for Lobster Bisque), if you'd prefer, but I think there's something about the flavor of bourbon that works really nicely here.

Using a whisk, add your roux in little bits, stirring constantly to avoid clumps. Turn your heat to low, and cook until the soup thickens. Don't worry about the booze, by the way; it will cook off. When it starts to get thick, add in your heavy cream, stirring constantly to emulsify the soup. Try not to boil your soup; it will develop an unattractive skin.

(Editor's Note: If you're really a stickler, you can run the soup through a strainer one more time -- this will make sure you don't get any roux clumps in the final product.)

That's it! Serve warm with chopped chives or scallions.

I know that seems like a lot of work, but I promise you, it's worth it -- the juxtaposition of the clean, salty, refreshing amuse-bouche with the thick, luxurious, silky bisque will demonstrate both the versatility of crawfish as an ingredient and your ability as a cook. Give it a try!

Music: Cookie Monster -- "One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other Things"

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