South African Crayfish (Spiny Lobster) with their long antennae and rough, spiny carapace (shell), are one of the delights of the crustacean world.
The meat, most of which is found in the tail, is sweet, firm-textured and very white when cooked. It can be used in any recipe needing lobster.
Crayfish, more correctly known as spiny lobster or rock lobster, or in Afrikaans “kreef”, live in the sea and are found under rocky ledges or crawling along the seabed. The two commercially available varieties in South Africa are the West Coast Rock Lobster (Jasus lalandii) found in the colder west coast waters and the East Coast Rock Lobster (Panulirus homarus).
The firm, sweet flesh beneath the horny outer covering of the creature is regarded by many as the most delicious of all South Africa’s seafoods. Most of the flesh is found in the long abdomen – incorrectly but commonly called the “tail” – and within the claws and legs.
Within living memory South African crayfish were both common and cheap, however today the price certainly places them in the luxury food bracket, unless you are lucky enough to be able to catch your own.
Allow ½ large or 1 small crayfish per serving. They may be bought live, ready cooked and frozen, or as crayfish tails. When buying fresh crayfish, make certain the tail is tightly curled into the body and snaps back when straightened, and that the crayfish is heavy for its size. The smell should be sweet and fresh. A 1–1,5 kg crayfish is ideal; larger ones tend to be rather tough so are best avoided.
The European lobster or French homard from northern seas differs from the South African crayfish in that it has large pincer claws, containing much of the sweet juicy meat, and a smooth, shiny carapace.
Where and How to Buy Crayfish
Crayfish are available fresh from a licensed supplier such as a fishmonger, the fish delicatessen at the supermarket, or from certain fish wholesalers. Supplies are not always constant, so when planning for that special dinner party, make sure you order in advance. To test for freshness, stretch out the crayfish “tail” – it should spring back into a curled position immediately. Most dealers sell the crayfish live in season and this ensures the sweetest flavour and the firmest flesh.
Whole cooked crayfish are also available from these sources and can be the answer if you are squeamish about dealing with a live animal. The horny shell of a raw crayfish is a brownish colour but when cooked, turns a vibrant orange-red. Crayfish “tail” or whole crayfish are readily obtainable frozen and although they lack the subtler flavour and firmer texture of their fresh counterparts, are nevertheless a useful standby.
- Handling Live Crayfish
- A crayfish that has been “gently killed” before cooking is said to have a sweet, tender flavour. One method is to fill a large bucket with fresh water and immerse the crayfish completely until it is dead. This takes about half an hour. Another method is to place the crayfish alive in boiling water, experts say it is kinder to stun the crayfish on the back of the head first. Overseas it is customary to kill this type of shellfish by plunging a knife into the head and splitting it.
- Handling Frozen Crayfish
- Defrost crayfish completely before cooking. This applies to whole frozen crayfish and to crayfish “tails”. Depending on the size, defrosting takes from 2–5 hours. Proceed as for fresh crayfish.
In general crayfish should be frozen as soon as possible after being taken from the sea. It is also best to freeze it raw since cooked crayfish tends to lose some of its texture and taste.
Kill the crayfish by immersing in fresh water for half an hour or, if you prefer, place in boiling water for 2–3 minutes.
Scrub the crayfish shell with a stiff brush to remove any extraneous sand, weed, barnacles etc. Allow to cool if the crayfish has been placed in boiling water.
Put each crayfish immediately into a strong plastic freezing bag. Shape the bag around the crayfish and suck out the air so that the shells do not get freezer burn.
Seal the bag with a wire tie and freeze immediately. Eat within six months.
It may be more convenient to freeze just the “tails” as the heads are bulky and the leg meat dries out and shrinks when frozen.
A good idea is to parcook the crayfish briefly so that the “tails” can be separated by twisting it from the body. Rinse off any extraneous matter under the tap, pat dry with kitchen towel and freeze as described in 3 and 4 above.
The head and legs can then be cooked and eaten immediately, and make a delicious dish when the meat is dipped in mayonnaise or a flavoured butter.
This flesh can also be used as a glamorous addition to scrambled eggs.
Of course the heads and legs also form an excellent basis for fish soups such as Bouillabaisse du Cap and Fruits de mer du Cap.
Preparing Raw Crayfish
This method can also be used for serving cooked crayfish in the shell.
Place the dead crayfish right side up, tail outstretched, on a wooden board.
Using an extremely sharp knife with a large blade, cut through the shell of the crayfish head, moving downward through the middle of the tail.
If one person is going to eat both halves, leave the last segment of the tail shell joined so that the crayfish halves are hinged together.
Degut the crayfish by removing the “stomach” and the alimentary canal which looks like a piece of cord running the length of the body. If the alimentary canal is empty, this is a tidy business. Most shop-bought crayfish have been starved for about 48 hours before you buy them, in which case the canal will be empty.
Leave the liver and, in the case of the female, the pink coral in place. Now, with a spoon scrape out any messy bits.
Rinse crayfish quickly under running water and dry well with a clean cloth.
Alternative Cutting Method
If you do not own a really sharp knife, this method works well. It is easy and ideal for smaller crayfish.
Place the raw crayfish on its back and stretch out the tail.
With a knife or kitchen scissors, start cutting from the vent at the end of the tail through the soft undershell right up the tail along the central line of the alimentary canal.
Do not cut right through to the outer shell, particularly if you wish to serve the crayfish in the shell.
Cut through the harder body shell up the centre between the legs.
Prise open the head with your hands. You now have the tail in one piece and the head stretched open.
Cut away the soft body shell of the tail and lift it right off.
Degut crayfish, rinse and pat dry with absorbent paper.
Cooking Crayfish in Liquid
It is important not to overcook this delicacy. Weigh the crayfish. Cooking time should be 6 minutes for every 450 grams.
Fill a large saucepan with enough salted water to completely cover the crayfish. Or, make a court bouillon, better still, if you are enjoying your fresh catch on the beach, use sea water.
Bring the water to a fast boil, add the crayfish and allow the water to reach boiling point again.
Time the cooking from this moment onwards. The water should simmer gently, not boil, until the crayfish is done. An average-sized crayfish takes about 12 minutes to cook.
Once cooked, remove the crayfish which will now have a brilliant, orange-red shell, drain and cool right side up.
Open the shell and degut crayfish.
Crayfish cooked in liquid is best eaten hot in the shell with lemon butter or cold with a mild seafood mayonnaise.
- Grilling Crayfish
- Even with a preheated grill, you’ll find grilling tends to singe the outside of the crayfish before the inside is properly cooked.
- A more satisfactory result is obtained by preheating the whole oven to 200°C (390°F) and only then turning the grill on full and starting the cooking process.
- The heat from the bottom of the oven reduces the cooking time so that the top flesh does not char badly and the edges of the shell still look neat.
- Frequent basting is essential to ensure that the flesh stays succulent. It is worth taking the trouble to clarify the butter to obtain an even browning and avoid unsightly scorching.
- Fisherman’s Steamed Crayfish
- This old method attributed to Cape Malay fishermen is perhaps the best method of cooking fresh crayfish. The live crayfish is wrapped in a sack or thick newpaper soaked with sea water. The sack is fitted into a paraffin tin which is placed on the coals. The crayfish is then dry steamed. Check whether it is cooked after about 15 minutes.
How to Eat Crayfish
Crayfish, either hot or cold, is best served with lemon butter or a light seafood dressing which will not mask the delicate taste. I do not like absolutely fresh crayfish smothered in strongly flavoured butters or sauces such as garlic butter and peri peri sauce.
The crayfish flesh is eaten with a fish knife and fork. The legs are cracked open with the fingers or special crayfish crackers and the sweet leg meat – some people think it is the finest part of the crayfish – can be pulled straight out of the shell.
The condition of the leg meat is an indication of freshness. If the crayfish has been frozen the leg meat will have shrunk and is impossible to extricate.
Any white meat is edible and well worth prying from the shell.
The liver which is the soft grey/green matter in the head, and the pink coral (undeveloped eggs in the female), are also considered delicacies and make delicious eating.
When whole crayfish are served, finger bowls of warm water and sliced lemon should always be provided.
Category: South African Cuisine
Subcategory: Seafood - Crustaceans
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