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Wednesday, July 9, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lake Takeout -- Tender And Mild, Crawfish Are Capturing Cooks' Attention - Especially Since Local Waters Offer Ample Supplies For Great . . .

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

They're strange to look at, no doubt about that.

Stranger still when you spot them scuttling along the bottom of a freshwater lake or stream - not really where you'd expect to find a critter resembling a small lobster, complete with claws, spindly legs and long antennae.

They're crawfish (or crayfish), of course, but even if you've lived in Washington for years you may be unaware we have them here - or that they're edible.

As country kids, my friends and I frequently found crawfish in the local creeks where we played, but we never thought of eating them, or knew that you could.

Now, as Washington crawfish turn up in more and more seafood shops and a few supermarkets, more people are discovering you can eat them - and they're pretty darn good.

Summer, when they're most plentiful, is a good time to give them a try, although the season runs from early May through October.

"People buy 'em like crazy," says Greg Caluya of Ohana Seafood Market in Crossroads. "They used to be dirt cheap," but prices have risen with rising interest. They were about $4 a pound at several stores this week.

Crawfish are still small fry, saleswise, compared with big kahunas like salmon or crab, but Jon Daniels of City Fish in Pike Place Market says they do sell about on a par with scallops or black tiger prawns.

Louisiana crawfish, also available here, are more famous. They're big in Cajun and Creole cooking and the star attraction at

mondo crawfish feeds down South.

But the Washington cousins are actually larger; extra-big ones can reach 8 or 10 inches. And to some minds they're better than their Southern relatives, with a less-muddy taste.

When we tried some local crawfish in The Seattle Times Test Kitchen, the taste varied. Some had a clean, fresh taste, others slightly muddy, but all were very mild.

Many of the crawfish sold here start out just minutes away, in Lake Washington. The lower Columbia River is another chief source.

Among a handful of commercial crawfish catchers plying Lake Washington are Owen and Kym Kvinge. They lay down a 1,200-foot line studded with baited wire pots, or traps, and pull them in every couple of days.

"Right now, I can't keep up with my orders," though it's still a small operation, something to supplement his winter crab fishing in Alaska, says Owen Kvinge.

The Kvinges put up with one of the minor hazards of crawfishing - getting pinched by the claws, which aren't big but can still draw blood. "I get pinched a couple times a day," says Owen.

A question some people ask is whether Lake Washington is a clean-enough source for a catch used as food.

But Morris Barker of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife says the lake's pollution problem was cleaned up years ago - and its crawfish were probably safe to eat even before the cleanup.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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