These are fairly popular in Spain, though to be honest I don’t remember having tried these until a few years back from my mother-in-law. Two memories spring to mind, the first one which Linguini won’t be too happy that I mention is that when we just started, he brough a tupper of “cangrejos” his mom had prepared. Before he even opened it, he started going on about how she usually prepares them with natural raff tomatoes but this time she didn’t have at hand so did cooked them with canned tomato puree. He got so disgusted just thinking about it, that little after eating them he had to run to the bathroom!
I hadn’t tried them, so the second time she brought some, I didn’t want to miss them as they smelled fantastic. But, though the sauce was delicious I couldn’t cope with their own flavour. So, I thought that was it for me…But a bit later on, I wanted to make them just for the heck of the sauce myself, so I asked her how she did them to have a go at the recipe. I was disappointed to hear there were no “tricks” to it, it was a simple tomato sauce with some slow fried onion (the key is the flavour they impart on the sauce). I thought it sounded so plain, that I decided to add some “hotness” to it :). I added some cayenne pepper and when we ate them, Linguini noted that they were spicy and I assured him I hadn’t added anything to his mom’s recipe! (he’s not too keen on hot food and I could see that one coming!). He was amazed that they had such an intense flavour, they were even hot!:D I kept my lie until he one day he told his parents the story of the “full flavour even hot” crayfish, and I felt obliged to tell the truth as his mom frowned!
Also, that first time I thought cooking them alive was sort of “cruel” and since I had watched in “Mostly Martha” that the “proper”(more ethical) way to kill it was to run a large knife across its head so it “wouldn’t suffer” as it was plunged into boiling water (not that we ever did this with lobsters in restaurants where it was served). Imagine with 1 kg of small crayfish, going one after the other to “give them a less painful” end! they kept on moving and I thought it was more tortuous…to them and for me to watch! Later on I read a scientific paper questioning that they did have a reflexes but did not experience pain…Anyway, to be honest, even though I think they might, I prefer to not dwell on it. But was sure that it was the last time I would finish their existence one at a time, plus, maybe I was impressed from the experience, but to me they had an off, even stronger flavour.
So, when did I get to like them enough to want to share it with you???When I learned that removing their intestines (we call this “castrarlos”) gives them a mellower, less bitter flavour! Funny I had learnt to devein prawns such a long time ago and it didn’t know that these could be deveined without having to peel them first. The problem is that since you ought to buy these fresh, that is alive, otherwise they lose a lot of weight (flesh), you gotta handle with a firm hand to hold them and devein them. Other than that…this is a terribly basic recipe, that I’ve learned to love and now I cannot stop licking my fingers as slurp them and dip bread to finish with the last drop of sauce! If you can get hold of them…have a go!
“Cangrejos de río” in spicy tomato sauce
(enough for 4 LARGE servings)
About 1kg of crayfish/yabbies
50-60g olive oil
about 1 kg ideally fresh tomatoes (otherwise, canned peeled tomatoes)
1 large onion (aprox. 300g)
6 beautiful sized cloves of garlic
3-4 cayenne peppers (I use 3 for a milder heat and 4 for more of a kick!)
2 bay leaves
150-200g of dry sherry wine
a bit of sugar (to remove sourness from the tomatoes)
I begin with the sauce, since as it’s cooking, I can prepare the yabbies (by the way, this is their name in Australia. I just like to call them that as it’s how I learnt them first).
Chop the onion in half and then into a fine julienne. If the onion is large, like mine was, I previously give it a cut crosswise, so the slices are not as long that end up being almost stringy. If you prefer you can just chop them up finely in brunoise.
Then, remove the garlic germ (if any) and chop it up as finely as you can. Place both chopped onions & garlic with the bay leaves and cayenne peppers to slow-fry with about 50g of oil and a pinch of salt.
They are ready when they are really soft and begin to colour lightly (see photo later on).
Meanwhile, prepare the tomato. If you use fresh I suggest you 1) either whiz them up with a blender or processor (after washing and removing the scar) and strain them to remove the skin; this is if you want more of a smoother sauce or 2) as I did this time, for a chunkier, more textured result, peel the tomatoes and then just finely chop them up.
To peel the tomatoes, remove the scar and with a light hand, make a cross shaped incision (this will help you peel later as a starting point). Place a pan of water large enough to fit all tomatoes to boil and then plunge the tomatoes in and over high heat count to around 25 seconds. You don’t want to leave them too short, or they won’t peel, but too long you’ll be left with a mush as they are peeled. You should see the incisions beginning to open up a bit, but not curl up. Then remove them onto a large bowl of cold or iced water and move a bit until cool.
Then, you’ll see how easy they peel and how smooth the surface is.
Once peeled, just chop them up finely and add to the sofrito and cover a bit at medium heat. This will soften the tomatoes before they begin to reduce, so you get more sauce rather than just chunks of cooked tomato.
When softer, remove the cover to reduce rapidly at the beginning (to evaporate more water) and then a bit slower so the bottom doesn’t burn! It will take about 20-30 minutes. Season with salt and a bit of sugar if there’s any sourness.
See the texture of the sauce? I find it’s done when the oil begins to separate from the sauce, later on you can adjust consistency adding more liquid, but this step I find brings out more flavour and sweetness from the tomatoes.
I almost forgot, it might be a GOOD idea to remove the cayenne peppers at this time, before mixing with the yabbies, as they are almost impossible to find…and I’ve already happened to bite into 3 of them!!!This time I remembered after serving…Better late than never!
Meanwhile prepare the yabbies…What’s in the bag? They pierced it!
Prepare a large bowl (the one you used for tomatoes) where you’ll wash them. Then, take one at a time, grabbing the claws together and placing them over the head to press down the tail (they’ll obviouly try to kick themselves free). I use gloves because I don’t like the feeling, but no need to.
Then, you have to twitch the centre segment of the tail and pull away to remove the intestine. Like I mentioned, this removes the bitterness for a milder, more balanced flavour.
Place in the bowl and repeat with the others.
Before I went on, one of them was defying me…Poor thing, as I approached it stood there defensive.
When all are done, time to thoroughly wash them. They’ll probably be really dirty! often with mud from the river. So, wash them a few times until the water runs clear and with the last wash, add a dash of white wine vinegar to remove any dirt that may be left or funny flavours. I find a splatter guard to come in handy!
Make sure you strain as much water as possible, or it will splatter as they are fried.
I used a “paella” pan but if you prefer, maybe a casserole with higher borders might be better.
Add a dash of oil into the preheated pan and add the yabbies, season with salt and cook through until they all change in colour.
Add the wine and reduce by about half and mix in the tomato sauce. Cook lightly covered for about 10 minutes (so the heads are cooked through). If it’s dry add a bit of water (or more sherry) to give the sauce the consistency you prefer.
Adjust seasonings and…enjoy!
I find they are best, like stews, after an overnight rest, as the flavour of the sauce penetrates and blends with their own flavour. But if you can’t wait, like us, serve right away!