For my birthday -- six months ago -- I got some soft-shell crawfish, which have been sitting in my freezer ever since, because they were damn expensive and I wanted to be sure I did something "worthwhile" with them. Then I realized it had been six months, and that I should just make a dinner I liked.
Now, you probably remember from your biology classes in some single-digit grade that many crustaceans (and other arthropods) molt as they grow, shedding its old exoskeleton so that it can grow a new larger one. The softshell so-and-so is the so-and-so right after molting, before that hard shell has developed.
I was familiar with two kinds of softshells: crabs and lobsters. Softshell lobsters are just like regular lobsters to all appearances, except that there is proportionately less meat inside -- but you eat them the same way, boiling them and breaking them open and whatnot. Softshell crabs, on the other hand, have a soft, pliable shell, and can be eaten whole, shell and all. In New Orleans, they're usually battered and deep-fried. The softshell crab poboy is something I'd get two or three times a year; the flavor isn't quite the same as regular crab, but I always liked it.
Softshell crawfish are like softshell crab. The whole thing is edible, shell and claws and the whole nine yards. I'm guessing the reason they're so expensive is because of rarity -- for all the years I lived in New Orleans, I'd never heard of them or seen them offered anywhere, though since then the softshell crawfish poboy has become a frequently blogged-about item at Jazzfest.
I really didn't know what to expect. When I opened the container, many of the crawfish claws had either become detached from the bodies, or detached themselves as I picked them up. These are fragile things compared to regular hardshell crawfish -- maybe that's another reason for the rarity and expense? I don't know.
I decided to cook up just a few of them, in case I discovered something critical about them in the process. It worked out fantastically, and I made the same thing with the rest the next day.
Softshell crawfish, tomato sauce, smoked grits.
Softshell crawfish: deep-fried in a batter of buttermilk, cornmeal, self-rising flour, and Old Bay.
Tomato sauce: bacon debris (left over from making the sweet potato bacon hash), roasted tomato puree, chopped hot cherry peppers, demiglace, malt vinegar.
Smoked grits: grits cooked in the stovetop smoker; mixed with boiled peanuts, peppadews, and two cheeses (aged gouda and cave-aged gruyere). Cooled overnight, cut into squares, reheated in the oven.
So good. I don't know how to describe the softshell crawfish. There's a definite crawfish flavor, obviously, which a texture sort of ... halfway between softshell crab and sauteed crawfish tails. There's not as noticeable a distinction between the shell and the inside as with softshell crab -- it doesn't feel as much like, well, eating a whole animal. And the crawfish flavor is ... it's like discovering a new part of the crawfish. You can tell it's crawfish -- not shrimp, not crab, not lobster, but crawfish -- but it's noticeably different from the crawfish you've had before.
I figured there was a chance this was something I'd just have once out of curiosity, but no, I would definitely do this again.