THE group at the table was silent. Their moment of truth had come. ``Umm ... just how do you eat one of these things?'' ventured the bravest. He was referring to the small red crustacean perched on a creole dish of Veal and Crawfish Etouff'ee. (Crawfish means crayfish.) As the diner's fellow creole novices laughed, they awaited an answer.
Had the diners been in Louisiana, there probably would have been at least one crawfish authority among them. But these people were in Cambridge, Mass., at the Rosemary Caf'e, and some had never even seen a crawfish before. As they wrestled the meat from the shells, they tried to convince their taste buds that these were mini- lobsters, not large bugs.
Insect likenesses and other difficulties aside, the crawfish offered the newcomers a delightful taste experience. The tail meat had a lobster-like texture. It was delicious - even better when covered in the spicy sauce of the main course. The back had a sharp, oyster-like taste, not as pleasing as the tail. The claws could also be eaten, but were so small that most of the group didn't make the effort.
The crawfish, however, was just the decoration on top of the entree. And these northerners were more interested in the rice dish below - a delectable mixture of spices and meats.
Veal and Crawfish Etouff'ee is a stew made with crawfish tails, green sweet peppers, green onions, celery, and pieces of tender veal - all seasoned to a spicy hot with cayenne pepper and Tabasco sauce - then served over brown and wild rice.
At first bite, everyone smiled.
As the meal progressed, however, only ardent spicy-food fans were able to clean their plates. Throughout the dinner, as tongues started to burn, people would stop and say, ``No more!'' But after a drink of water or a bite of roll to cool down the fire, they went back for ``just one more bite.''
Perhaps it would have been easier to enjoy a meal like this in the South with Louisianians instructing diners on the finer points of crawfish eating. But discovering the world of creole with fellow creole novices makes the meal less embarrassing - and the food more exotic.
Creole and Cajun foods have been gaining popularity in the United States for the past few years. With dishes chock full of novelties - such as crawfish - and other tantalizing combinations like jambalaya (a stew made with vegetables, beef stock, and anything from oysters to chicken), this popularity is understandable.
So if you are tired of hamburgers and are looking for some delicious spicy food, this Louisiana fare offers a hot American alternative. But ask for rolls and lots of water - and repeat to yourself, ``Crawfish are just minilobsters.''
Saut'eed Veal and Crawfish Etouf'ee 1/4 cup chopped onions 1/4 cup celery 1/4 cup chopped green bell peppers 7 tablespoons vegetable oil 3/4 cup all-purpose flour 3 cups seafood stock 1/2 pound unsalted butter 1 pound veal in 1/2-inch strips 2 pounds peeled crawfish tails 1 cup very finely chopped green onions 8 servings cooked brown and wild rice, mixed
Seasoning mix 2 teaspoons salt 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper 2 teaspoons Tabasco pepper sauce 1 teaspoon black pepper 1 teaspoon dried sweet basil leaves 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves Cooked brown and wild rice
Combine seasoning mix ingredients in small bowl and set aside. In separate bowl, combine onions, celery, and bell peppers.
In a large heavy skillet, heat oil over high heat until it begins to smoke. With a long-handled metal whisk, gradually mix in flour, stirring until smooth. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until roux is dark red-brown, 3 to 5 minutes.
Remove from heat, and immediately stir in vegetables and 1 tablespoon seasoning mix with wooden spoon. Continue stirring until cooled, about 5 minutes.
In a 2-quart saucepan bring 2 cups of stock to boil over high heat. Gradually add roux and whisk until thoroughly dissolved. Reduce heat to low and cook until flour taste is gone, about 2 minutes, whisking almost constantly. Remove from heat and set aside.
In 4-quart saucepan, melt 1 stick of the butter over medium heat. Dip veal strips in flour, add and stir in with crawfish and green onions. Saut'e about 1 minute, stirring constantly.
Add remaining 1 cup of stock. Cook until butter melts and is mixed into sauce, 4 to 6 minutes, constantly shaking pan in a back-and-forth movement. Add remaining seasoning mix. Stir well and remove from heat. Serve immediately over a mixture of hot brown and wild rice. Serves 8.