Let the Good Times Roll With a Cajun Seafood Boil
When there’s cause for celebration, keep it simple and sociable, bayou-style, with a steaming pot of spicy shellfish. This recipe for Cajun seafood boil is an easy and festive way to feed a crowd
By Gail Monaghan in the Wall Street Journal
MY MANHATTAN-RAISED daughter Tess just got married in New Orleans, where she’s lived for the last seven years. The venue was Preservation Hall, the jazz club right off Bourbon Street, smack in the heart of the French Quarter. And as my brand-new son-in-law, Bernard Frugé III, is a born and bred Cajun from Lafayette, the whole weekend was Louisiana all the way. Genius moment: when Bernard’s mother decided to turn the 200-person rehearsal dinner into a Cajun seafood boil.
Like the hunt breakfast in Virginia, the clambake in New England and the luau in Hawaii, the Cajun seafood boil is one of a sadly diminishing number of regional-American festive culinary traditions designed to nourish in quantity. The one-pot boil, prepared stovetop or outdoors, requires the least fuss of any of the above. It’s a casual happening, usually staged in the open air and always requiring an inordinate number of paper napkins or, in true Cajun style, rolls of paper towels.
Large boils often employ a “boil master,” responsible for seasoning, sequencing and timing. For the rehearsal dinner, the expert who drove over from Cajun country was Meg Arceneaux, from Hawk’s Crawfish restaurant in Rayne, Louisiana, bringing with her 500-plus pounds of crawfish, a vast volume of the piquant purpose-built spice mixture known as crab boil and vegetables galore. And at the last minute, just to ensure no one went hungry, the Frugés—with typical South Louisiana openhandedness—also hired a pit master, tasked with roasting a several-hundred-pound pig to crispy perfection in a huge wood and metal box—known in those parts as a Cajun microwave—assembled on site. A spread of baked beans, coleslaw, pickles, grits and pies practically buckled the buffet table, while a zydeco band blaring out traditional waltzes and two-steps rendered the already animated eating and partying even more so.
“Cajun” has been trending since the ‘80s when chef Paul Prudhomme burst on the scene with his blackened redfish. In the ensuing years I’ve encountered South Louisiana dishes on menus as far-flung as San Francisco and London. Outside of Louisiana, however, there is still profound confusion regarding what “Cajun” actually means.
I’d spent plenty of time with Tess in New Orleans but was, I’ll confess, clueless as to who the Cajuns were until Bernard did some demystifying. He explained that despite a common misconception, New Orleans is not Cajun, that the hub of Acadian culture lies 150 miles to the west over the Atchafalaya Basin. I never managed to make it across until last November, when Bernard, Tess and I popped over to Lafayette for an over-the-top friends-and-family shrimp-and-crab boil to celebrate his father’s birthday. Though, geographically, we’d traveled just a stone’s throw, I realized that, culturally, the swamp we’d crossed could just as easily have been the Atlantic Ocean.
Driving over, Bernard recapped some local history, explaining that the Crescent City (a nickname referring to New Orleans’s graceful hugging of a river bend) was populated by French, then by Spanish settlers and ultimately by “Creoles,” a term that has been contested over the years but is typically taken to mean someone born in the New World of mixed European or European and African or Native American origin. Bernard also explained that the city’s highly developed cuisine reflects an opulent lifestyle made possible by lucrative river traffic and international commerce.
Cajuns or Acadians like Bernard, on the other hand, descend from French speakers who—exiled from Canada’s Maritime Provinces in the second half of the 18th century—found new homes in South Louisiana. Down around Lafayette they developed a distinct culture: their very own food, music, dance and Cajun French dialect.
Their swamp livelihoods were found right in their own backyards: historically crawfish, alligator and rice farming; shrimping; and hunting. Cajun food is rustic, often taking pork products and a dark roux of fat and flour as the starting point. These highly seasoned, waste-not-want-not dishes can contrast starkly with the more refined, butter-and-cream-based Creole cuisine often found in New Orleans.
Acadians catch one type of shellfish or another all year long. Fresh shrimp are available January through December; though blue crabs have a long season, they are largest and heaviest from October to December; while spring is prime time for crawfish. The same foolproof cooking technique described below serves for all of it, the only variable being timing, the only requisites a big pot with a tightfitting lid and lots of crab boil.
Be forewarned: South Louisiana boils are spicy affairs. Some cooks, like the boil master at Tess and Bernard’s rehearsal dinner, are of the too-much-is-never-enough school and toss the just-cooked, already spicy seafood with extra seasoning and hot pepper before serving. Do this at your own risk. For me, the sweet, delicate shrimp, crab and crawfish meat is a special treat, and I prefer it not overwhelmed by cayenne or hot sauce. But then I’m not from Louisiana.
‘They dump the contents of the pot over newspaper-covered tables provisioned with lemon wedges, hot sauce and melted butter.’
Whatever the variety of seafood used, local corn, heads of garlic, onions and potatoes are invariably in the mix. Some boil masters add extra vegetables—Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, asparagus, artichokes, parsnips, carrots—often cooking them in pantyhose to ensure easy removal from the pot. For the same reason, the seafood is sometimes tied off in pillowcases preceding the plunge into the boiling broth.
Traditionalists eschew platters and dump the cooked and drained contents of the pot over newspaper-covered tables provisioned with lemon wedges, bottles of hot sauce and melted butter. Sometimes cocktail sauce, ketchup and Italian dressing make an appearance as well.
If you can’t find crawfish at your local fishmonger, you can order them online to arrive the following day. Or simply use shrimp and crab. Whatever you choose to put in the pot, a South Louisiana seafood boil always makes for a great hot-weather party, even if your daughter is not about to marry a Cajun.