Ask Peter: Crayfish
I’m very keen to impress my friends with delicious crayfish rolls. What’s the best way to serve them and how do I go about prepping the crayfish — I hear that you buy them alive!? Is there a way of sourcing them ethically and ensuring that they don’t suffer?
Ah, crayfish. What’s not to like about these delicious-tasting, alien-looking beasts? As a child we ate a lot of them. My father Bruce and his mates would have “bloke weekends” down at Ngawi near Cape Palliser where there was an awful lot of beer drunk and an awful lot of crays and paua harvested.
They’d stay in a woolshed that was also used to store agar seaweed in the off-season and then return to Whanganui laden with cooked and raw crays. Dad taught me to always cook crayfish in the water it was captured in. Easy to do when you’re staying on the coast, of course.
Lugging back 50 litres of sea water makes no sense, so we’d add salt to taste to get the next best thing. We figured the salinity of the ocean off Wairarapa was way more salty than that off Kaikoura so we’d add extra salt when cooking crays from there. Whether or not it was, or is, wasn’t important — the excuse for Dad to have a good yarn was what counted.
However, do make your boiling water as salty as the sea — and you don’t need to use expensive flaky salt unless you feel you simply must. The fine stuff is good in this situation.
The theory behind cooking a cray sits in two camps. The first is to boil it for a certain amount of time, then remove it from the pot and leave to cool. The second, and this is what I tend to do, is to drop the beast into boiling water, boil for a minute or two, then turn the heat off and leave it to cool in the pot. There’s no reason why one works better than the other and it’s really up to you.
Before you cook the cray, though, you need to either kill it, or at least make it unconscious. In the past, we’d simply throw them live into boiling water — much the same as we do with mussels and clams (although with molluscs we tend to bring them to a boil with other things like wine, butter, herbs and the likes).
Nowadays it seems more kind and fair to not cook them while they are still aware of the horror awaiting them. The easiest way to kill them it to wrap them up in newspaper (it stops them thrashing around) and then in a plastic bag and place them in the freezer for three hours. By this point they’ll have died, I’ve been told, and then you can simply add them to a pot large enough to hold them and cook as required.
It’s also at this point that you can sever the tail from the head. I’d never do that myself as I like to cook them whole, but if you don’t have a huge pot you may struggle fitting a whole crayfish in in one piece.
Take the cray from the freezer and unwrap its tail. Using a sharp knife, poke it and cut between the tail and head shells, poking the point of the blade towards the head rather than straight through as there is a lot of tail meat just under the head shell. Using a tea towel to hold the still-wrapped head and another to hold the tail, gently but firmly twist the tail as if you were wringing out a towel, until it snaps apart.
You may want to use the knife to help a little. If the crayfish has frozen, you’re best to leave it to come to room temperature for 20 minutes before doing this, as the flesh will be very firm.
Once cooked, it’s really up to you as to how to serve it. Avocado, pickled sushi ginger, chillies, lemon aioli, tarragon creme fraiche, smoked paprika mayonnaise — all of these go well with the flesh whether it be in a soft white bun or roll, wrapped up in Vietnamese rice paper wraps, tossed with linguine or mixed with steamed new baby potatoes.
Lime or lemon wedges always help and make sure it gets a decent sprinkling of flaky sea salt — where the texture works wonders with this sweet flesh!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.