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What a difference a cray makes…..

She rang early.” Can we come for lunch? I'm showing the Great Ocean Road
and the 12 Apostles to a mate. Can we bring anything?" Instantly a friendship
continues.

She had taken us to our first French restaurant, Julien in Faubourg St-Denis.

Cassoulet, with a Poire William sorbet at the end of the meal. The midnight
drive to see the Corbusier houses, hot grogs at La Palette.

When she was in Singapore it was a sunset and pepper crab at East-coast
Parkway, followed by the best duck popiah in town for breakfast. We paid her
back one year with fresh foie gras and Tokai Aszu in Budapest.

But the best is always at home, hers or ours, without the distraction of waiters
or any ceremony. More time to fill in the gaps.

Do a little cooking. ………..

This year she was bringing a friend from the Paris days to show her the home
turf.

Her friend had run a restaurant in the Marais for 10 years, before the
gentrification had set in.

"Yes," I answered. "Please, could you pick up a cray from the co-op at the
bay? I'll ring ahead."
I have to be careful here - we are entering the slippery territory of
nomenclature. The official name for this great big delicious local red sea
monster caught in the waters of south-western Victoria is Southern rock
lobster, Jasus edwardsii. But I will continue to call our soon-to-be-murdered
other invited guest a cray. There is too little left of our precious Australian
idiom to lose this wonderful word.

I remember when my family first arrived in Australia from Hungary, thinking
that we had entered a surreal culinary landscape.

Fish fingers, bird's eyes and spiders were yet to reveal their true culinary
meanings. You could not only get a spider at the pub or milk bar but also, we
discovered, at the fish shop.

At one of our neighbour's Christmas barbecues in the 1960s, the kids were
sent down to the local fish shop to pick up the "spiders", the large cooked
head and legs of this wonderful crustacean. My neighbours knew their tucker.

The drive down along the coastline had enthralled my friend's French guest,
but when asked about her lunch en route, she politely remarked on the bland
flavour of the prawns and oysters she'd encountered.

It is so sad to see brilliant seafood like oysters sold pre-shucked and
shrivelled, or prawns cooked into next week, crays frozen.

It's all too easy to sell seafood to an inexperienced market, but there is
change coming. The region that recognises the enormous benefits to tourism
with the proper treatment of these scarce ambassadors of the sea will reap a
sizable and sustainable increase in visitor numbers and reputation.

But back to our red guest.

To appreciate the full possibilities of a cray, it has to have some size.

Anything less than a kilo and a half is a waste of time. You need a decent-
sized "spider" to get stuck into the sweet juicy meat of the legs. And, of
course, it needs to be alive or freshly cooked, because the flesh deteriorates
very quickly after death.

When buying a cray, look for a heavy, dark red specimen with a good strong
shell.

They moult several times in their life cycle, and soon after this they can be
pale and light-on in the meat department.

After the welcoming drinks, we examined the contents of the esky and began
to plan the murder.
There are many ways to dispatch a live cray. The easiest I have found is to
pop it in the freezer for about 40 minutes. This renders it unconscious and
ready for the knife or pot.

In a good year the budget allows us at least one treat of cray, so it should be
given all the care and respect it deserves. With most dishes, I try keep it
simple but careful.

This time, we decided to boil him.

The best medium for boiling a cray is clean seawater, but an 8 per cent
solution of salt and rainwater will do just fine (in other words, 80g of salt per
litre of water).

The difference between a freshly cooked cray and one that has been waiting
in the display fridge for a number of days is extraordinary. There is no
comparison. A cooked cray begins to lose its characteristic bittersweet fresh
flavour very quickly after it's cooked. Freezing further diminishes the flavour.

Our chap tipped the scales at 2.2kg - perfect for a lunch for four and a little left
for later.

You need a large pot so the water will not come off the boil for more than a
minute after you've added the cray. If you do not have a big burner on the
stove and have long ago got rid of the copper in the laundry, a good fish shop
will cook it if you give them enough notice. I cook mine for 10 minutes a kilo
and add five minutes "for the pot". So, for our intended lunch, the timer was
set to 27 minutes.

Resist the temptation to plunge the cray into a sink full of cold water after
cooking, as the skin between the body and the claws may have ruptured
during the cooking process, filling up the body and diluting the flavour. I fill the
sink with some ice and pop the cray in, sealed in a plastic bag, so it can cool
quickly but stay dry.

Don't chill it too long. Serve it at about the same temperature as a chardonnay
- which will marry perfectly with its buttery taste.

For a sauce, we settled on a light egg mayonnaise enhanced with a touch of
saffron, the crushed coral and juices from the head added at the end. But it
would need something extra to bring it all together.

Ginou, our Gallic guest, had a keen culinary eye. She asked about the purple
seed heads from the rocambole, or hard-neck garlic, sitting in the kitchen.
This garlic has a seed head that when broken apart resembles small purple
corn kernels packed with pungency. It would add crunch and punch to the
saffron dressing.

We picked some Warrigal greens - Tetragonia tetragonionoides - and
prepared a simple tomato side salad. Some good bread.
A white peach and ice-cream to complete the meal.

The rest of the day was left for filling in the gaps and planning what to do with
the leftovers over a little yabbying - or is that crayfishing?

I guess it depends on whether you prefer Tony Bennet to the B52s.

TO GRILL A LIVE CRAY

Chill in the freezer for 40 mins until it shows no signs of life.

Hold the body with a tea towel to shield your hands. Cut the body and tail
lengthwise with a large, heavy, sharp knife. Remove the coral and set aside to
enhance a sauce or to add to a bisque. Remove the intestinal tract.

Baste with some melted butter and olive oil and your favourite aromatic. It
could be ginger, garlic and lime. Basil and lemon zest. Chopped herbs. Or
some chilli and lobster oil.

Grill over a very gentle fire, shell side down, basting it at short intervals. Finish
quickly on the flesh side. High heat will burn the shell and impart a very
unpleasant aroma to the flesh.

TO DISSECT A COOKED CRAY

Insert a sharp knife where the tail meets the body and gently loosen it - set
the tail aside.

Keep a bowl under it while you do this to catch the tasty juices.
Cut the body in half and remove the orange coral and set aside.

Gently remove the legs and any loose flesh. With a pair of kitchen scissors,
cut away the shell from the tail (see photo). Cut the tail in half and remove the
intestinal tract. Cut the cray meat into medallions and set aside with the legs
for a salad.

THE NAME GAME

The terms lobster and crayfish have been used interchangeably in Australia.
C.J.Dennis in The Moods of Ginger Mick, 1919, uses cray, but the
international convention is to call marine species "lobsters" and freshwater
species "crayfish".

The eastern rock lobster is the name for Jasus verreauxi, previously known as
crayfish, green rock lobster or Sydney crayfish, among others. The southern
rock lobster, Jasus edwardsii, was previously known as cray, crayfish,
Melbourne crayfish, spinylobster or Tasmanian crayfish.

Marron are Cherax tenuimanus, a freshwater species previously known as the
West Australian marron, and mainly found in the west, although also farmed
on the east coast.

The yabby (aka yabbie, freshwater crayfish, gilgie, koonac, lobby or crawbob)
is from the same genus as the marron. It is farmed and fished commercially in
various parts of the country. Redclaw is yet another member of the Cherax
genus, a freshwater crustacean found mainly in Queensland and the Northern
Territory.

Cray spring rolls
A delicious snack from the leftovers, great as a starter.

INGREDIENTS

12 small spring roll skins (available at Asian grocers)
100g cooked cray meat, cut into small pieces
30g each of finely sliced leek, ginger, carrot
1 tbsp each of sesame oil, light soy sauce
1 small crushed chilli
juice of one lime
salt and pepper
oil for deep-frying

METHOD

· Mix all the ingredients together except the spring roll skins and the oil,
seasoning with salt and pepper, and leave to marinate for 30 minutes in the
fridge. Drain by pressing the mixture into a conical sieve. Keep the juices to
use as the dipping sauce.

· Distribute the mixture evenly between the spring roll skins and roll up (follow
the instructions on the spring roll skins packet).

· Deep-fry rolls until crisp. Drain on kitchen paper and serve with the dipping
sauce

Cray oil

Best with green or uncooked shells.

Excellent with prawn, yabby or crab shells as well as cray.

For one large cray:

· Crush the shells in a mortar and pestle with sea salt and 3 cloves of garlic.

· Prepare a mirepoix (small dice) of 100g carrots, 100g onions, and 30g
celery. Add a couple of bay leaves and a little chopped fresh chilli (bird's eye
or jalapeno but don't try it with the fiery habaneras), plus a little salt.

· Saute the vegetables, bay leaves and chilli in about 2 tbsp olive oil; add the
crushed cray or other shells.

Add a little white wine and season.

· Cook on high heat until most of the wine has reduced.

Add about a litre of olive oil and cook slowly, barely bubbling for about 45
minutes. Leave overnight in a cool spot.
· Carefully pour off the oil, strain through muslin and chill.

· Cray oil will keep well for at least 2 weeks in the fridge.

Use it in dressing, mayonnaise or for cooking and basting other seafood.

Garlic and saffron mayonnaise

INGREDIENTS

2 cloves of garlic
pinch of real saffron
1 egg yolk
250ml extra virgin olive oil
juice of half a lemon
sea salt and pepper
juices and coral from 1 cooked cray

METHOD

· Crush the garlic with the coral and a little salt in a mortar and pestle.
Transfer to a bowl and add the saffron, whisk in the egg yolk and then slowly
drizzle in the olive oil until thick, whisking continuously.

· Add the lemon juice and combine.

· Taste and season with sea salt and pepper.

· Add the juices from the head slowly until you have a creamy texture.
· This will not keep as long as a traditional mayonnaise because of the added
cray juices, so use it within 2 days.