Without question, Louisiana crawfish (and never say “crayfish” in Creole/Cajun country, unless you want eyebrows to rise) is one of the most noble delicacies of the South, and never are “crawdaddies,” or “mudbugs,” or “yabbies” more appreciated than when used to make a rich, aromatic, classic étouffée. For me, no trip to New Orleans is complete without a visit to the venerable Bon Temps Cafe for the crawfish étouffée, and on the rare occasion when I can find fresh crawfish outside the region, my thoughts are automatically directed to making this sumptuous dish. Frozen, peeled crawfish tails in 1-pound bags are increasingly available in finer seafood markets around the country, but if you can’t find them, small fresh shrimp are almost as good—and sometimes even better (if frozen crawfish tails are not processed exactly right, they can have a fishy taste).
In a large, heavy saucepan, heat the oil over high heat till it begins to smoke, about 5 minutes. Add the flour and, whisking briskly and constantly, cook till the roux is reddish brown and smooth, 3 to 5 minutes. (Do not let it burn.)
Remove the pan from the heat, add the onion, bell pepper, celery, tomato, and garlic and stir till well blended. Return the pan to the heat, reduce the heat to low, and gradually add the clam juice, stirring. Add the butter, basil, scallions, cayenne pepper, and lemon juice, stir well, and simmer till the vegetables are tender and the sauce has thickened, about 20 minutes. Add the crawfish, stir, and cook about 10 minutes longer or till the crawfish are pink and tender.
To serve, mound equal amounts of rice in the middle of 4 serving plates and spoon the crawfish mixture around the rice.
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