Living in south Louisiana means that the Lenten season — where traditionally one refrains from eating meat at least part of the time — isn’t maybe as much of a hardship as it is in other parts of the world.
Shrimp, crab, crawfish, fish, oysters and other seafood become regular parts of the Lenten menu and recipes abound. Here are some tips for buying, preparing and storing seafood from the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.
SEASON: Farm-raised gator is available all year and may be slightly more expensive than wild-caught alligator.
TO BUY: Alligator is mostly sold in 1-, 2- and 5-pound packages of predominantly tail meat.
PREPARATION: Use the tail and jaw for baked, fried and grilled items. Tenderize body and leg meat for soups, gumbos, picantes, casseroles and other braising-type cooking methods. Cut across the grain for increased tenderness and remove all fat before preparation and freezing.
EATING: Alligator is a mild-flavored white meat with a similar consistency and taste to chicken or pork.
STORAGE: Fresh alligator may be kept sealed in its original packaging, unopened and refrigerated, for 10 to 12 days. Opened alligator products should be refrigerated for only two to three days without freezing. Frozen meat should have all fat removed and may be frozen for up to a year. Cooked alligator keeps for about three days.
SEASON: Crab is available all year, but is more plentiful in warmer months.
TO BUY: There are traditionally four kinds of crabmeat: lump, special, claw and crab fingers. You can also purchase live crabs, which are male and larger than 61/2inches.
Louisiana blue crab is readily available and usually sold boiled or steamed and unseasoned in 1-pound containers. Check for proper labeling, which should include the kind of meat, date packaged, weight and country of origin.
Soft-shelled crab is the blue crab captured during molt and can be eaten, shell and all. They are available from late spring to early fall.
PREPARATION: Crab has a delicate flavor that shouldn’t be paired with strong flavors that would overwhelm it.
EATING: Eating a whole crab is a messy affair that calls for a properly prepared area covered in newspaper or other paper to make cleanup easier. You’ll need a claw cracker, a crab mallet (or a hammer) and a knife.
Remove the crab’s legs and claws with your hands, using a twisting motion. Any exposed meat is edible. Next, place the crab on its back and separate the body into 2 sections, top and bottom.
Break the bottom half into two sections. Use your fingers or a knife to remove the meat from the chambers. Use a claw cracker or a mallet to open the claws, then pick out the meat.
STORAGE: Fresh crab should be kept well-iced and stored in the coldest part of your refrigerator. It should not be kept warmer than 40 degrees.
Crab can be frozen for up to two months in pre-chilled, small containers. Cooked crabmeat is good 10 to 12 days from the date packaged. Once home, eat as soon as possible.
SEASON: Live crawfish are most prevalent in the spring. Packaged tail meat can be found year-round.
TO BUY: Peeled crawfish is sold in 1-pound bags with the fat left on the meat for better flavor. Crawfish fat becomes rancid within two to six months, frozen. Live crawfish are marketed in 35- to 40-pound mesh sacks. Early crawfish have thinner shells. High temperatures may stress live crawfish.
EATING: Hold your crawfish by the body and grab the tail. Twist the tail and pull away from the body. Pinch the tail just above the fans and pop the meat from the shell. Suck the head for the spicy juices and fat.
STORAGE: Live crawfish are sold in mesh sacks to keep them from hurting each other and also to allow them access to moisture, which must be maintained.
Crawfish in good health and kept in good, cool conditions can live for up to five days. If frozen crawfish is meant to be kept for more than five months, you should purchase the kind without fat, as it can become rancid.
Thaw for a day before cooking. Cooked tail meat should be used within a day or two.
SEASON: Fish, both fresh and saltwater, are available all year.
TO BUY: Fresh fish should always have a bright, uniform color, never yellow at the edges. The flesh should be moist and should not have a fishy or bad smell. Frozen fish should never be chalky and should never be covered in ice crystals. Most fish should be labeled according to country of origin.
PREPARATION: To fillet a fish, lay the fish on one side and place the knife blade under the front fin and cut at an angle toward the head and downward, stopping at the backbone.
Turn the knife so the blade runs parallel to the spine and cut slowly and carefully, sliding the knife along until you reach just above the tail. Pull the fillet away from the body of the fish, flipping it away from the head.
If you would like to keep the skin on, cut the meat away and cook. To remove the skin, place the knive at the point where the fillet is attached to the tail and slide it under the meat along the skin.
Keep the blade flat and parallel to the cutting surface, taking care not to cut the meat. To remove the rib cage and belly, cut along the vein from the head end to the back edge of the rib cage. Cut the vein to the edge of the fillet and cook.
EATING: Fish can be cooked just about every way imaginable, including baked, fried, grilled and blackened.
STORAGE: Fresh fish should be used in one to two days and kept in the coldest part of the refrigerator until then. Fish can be frozen for three to four months and thawed for a day before cooking. Cooked fish will keep three to four days in the refrigerator and frozen for a month.
SEASON: Oysters are more plentiful during cooler months, when a layer of glycogen built up by the living mollusk yields a larger oyster, but you can buy them all year.
TO BUY: Live oysters are sold in burlap sacks usually containing more than a bushel. Live graded half-shell oysters are sold by the count, volume or weight. A gapped oyster will not hold its shell closed and should be discarded.
Post-harvest treated half-shell oysters are treated using a process similar to pasteurization in order to reduce illness. Shucked oysters are sold in the gallon, half-gallon, quart, pint and smaller containers. Frozen shucked oysters are sold by weight.
PREPARATION: Oysters can be eaten raw, but can also be charbroiled, baked, fried, stewed or sautéed.
EATING: To shuck an oyster, start with an oyster knife that’s short and sturdy with a rounded tip.
Wear protective gloves or, at the very least, cover your hand in a dish towel. Choose oysters that are tightly shut and feel heavy. The deeper the cup of the lower shell, the meatier the oyster. Hold the oyster firmly with the deeper cup against your palm.
Slip the knife blade between the shells near the hinge on the back. The blade should be far enough in that it almost reaches the opposite side of the shell. You may have to wiggle the blade to get it firmly into the shell.
Keep the blade positioned so it is flat and parallel to the edge of the shells and run it all the way around the oyster.
Keep the blade pressed against the inner top surface of the upper oyster shell to avoid cutting into the oyster meat, but still severing the muscle that connects the oyster to its top shell. Move the blade back and forth until the shell gives.
Using a twisting motion, pry the top and bottom shells apart. Don’t jerk or force the oyster; you’ll lose the tasty oyster liquor.
Once the top shell is off, move the blade underneath the oyster meat to free it from the shell, then enjoy.
STORAGE: Live stock should be stored between 40 and 45 degrees, covered with a damp towel. Shucked oysters that have not been cooked can be stored in their liquor, covered and refrigerated for up to two weeks. Freeze freshly shucked oysters in an airtight container with the liquor. Thaw overnight.
SEASON: Product is available all year-round, though white shrimp are caught fresh April through December and brown shrimp are fresh April through February.
TO BUY: Shrimp are sized by how many are in a pound, with the price increasing along with the size of the shrimp. A blackened head means the shrimp are losing freshness, but if the tail meat remains translucent, it’s still fresh.
Shells should be translucent and moist and should not be slippery, have black edges or be spotted. Meat should be moist. The shrimp should smell of the sea, not fish or of ammonia.
Frozen shrimp should be white in color. Check for the country-of-origin label on the packaging and for the date packaged. Shrimp may also be sold frozen, peeled and deveined.
PREPARATION: Shrimp can be cooked with the shell and head still on, or they can be removed before cooking.
Cooking the shrimp with the shell on enhances the flavor and keeps the meat moist, with the exception of fried shrimp, which should be cooked without the shell. Deveining is a matter of taste — the veins are OK to eat but may taste gritty, particularly with larger shrimp.
To devein the shrimp, run the tip of a small knife down the back of the shrimp and pull the vein out with your fingers or the tip of the knife. Shrimp can be deveined with the shell on.
EATING: To peel a cooked shrimp, turn it on its back with the legs exposed. Near the top of the shrimp, place your thumbs in the middle and pull the shell apart. The thin shell should come off easily as you pull apart the underside, legs and all. You can keep the tail intact; it makes a convenient handle.
STORAGE: Fresh shrimp should be refrigerated in plastic wrap or in an airtight container. Use within one to two days for the best flavor.
Frozen shrimp should have the heads removed and can be kept for up to 12 months. Thaw overnight. Cooked shrimp can be refrigerated for three or four days.