Chef Austin Sumrall, co-owner with his wife, Tresse, of Biloxi, Mississippi’s White Pillars Restaurant and Lounge, hails the humble mudbug boil as the pinnacle of parties. “Around here, we do boils for any special occasion in spring, baby showers, you name it,” he says. Growing up, his family celebrated his late-March birthday with crawfish boils. Today, he uses spent crawfish heads to keep the celebration going.
For Sumrall, a boil’s lulls between eating, with their chatting and beer drinking, are as satisfying as the food. Sometimes, they’re revelatory. During one such break, with bellies full of crawfish meat (and beer) and a trash can full of discarded heads, Sumrall wondered: “How could I reuse those?” Inspiration from a local culinary fusion clawed its way through the spice-scented steam. “We have a strong Vietnamese culture on the Mississippi coast and into Louisiana, and Viet-Cajun is its own food genre, so I thought, ‘Curry sauce!’”
Now, when Sumrall does a boil, he reserves the heads to steep with aromatics like lemongrass and coriander in coconut milk, which is pureed before it’s pushed through a fine-mesh sieve to remove all bits of shell. In the resulting sauce, the slightly sweet milk balances out the subtle background heat from the boil liquid.
His red snapper dish swimming in the curry sauce is popular enough to make repeat appearances on White Pillars’s ever-changing menu each spring. While it has a lengthy ingredient list, the method is straightforward.
For a simpler application, he recommends infusing crawfish heads in heavy cream and using that in a classic bisque recipe. Simmering heads with veggies and herbs for stock is another option, but in Sumrall’s opinion, the crawfish flavor gets almost too strong. He uses garlic, citrus, and herbs to jazz up his boils, but your favorite boil blend will work fine. He also adds cayenne but offers a warning. “I don’t want to break a sweat; that level of heat will dominate whatever else you do with the heads.”
If you want to cook with crawfish heads post-boil, just pop them in the freezer. “They freeze for up to two weeks and are so intensely flavored, you don’t lose anything,” Sumrall says. The fridge is not as forgiving. “Don’t go more than two days; crawfish get funky quick.” And heed this key tip: “If you’re going to re-use the heads, rinse your crawfish really well before the boil; you want to get all the gunk off.”