Cravin’ crabs? Create your own feast at home
If you love crab but don't like the variety available at your local grocery store, then you're in luck. David Rosengarten, editor-in-chief of the foody newsletter, The Rosengarten Report, was invited to appear on “Today” to share some of his favorite selections of the most succulent whole crab, spiced crab, legs, and juicy pickin's that can be delivered straight to your door. Here’s his crabby analysis:
Staging a Maryland crab feast
There are so many spectacular crabs: Alaskan King Crab, Snow Crab, Jonah Crab, Dungeness Crab (I’ll give you sources for all of them below), but I confess, my favorite by far is the Blue Crab!
One of my favorite regional preparations of the Blue Crab is the Maryland Spice Crab. I wrote this little essay on serving and extracting the meat from Maryland-style Blue Crabs for my last cookbook, "It's ALL American Food." It takes a little more effort to pick this smaller crab, but is it ever worth the work! Just remember: Picking crab meat at a crab feast is fun! Just go slow and enjoy.
It is easy to reproduce a Maryland crab feast right in your home — or, better yet, in your backyard or on your patio! Figure at least six crabs per diner, and the recipe can easily be divided or multiplied.
First you gotta cook the crabs! The best way to do this at home is to fill a large pot with a steamer rack — with water, and bring the water to a boil. Place the live crabs right in the water and cook 'em, covered, for one minute, or until they are motionless. Remove the crabs, and place some of them, in a single layer, top shells up, undersides down, in the largest steamer basket you have. Sprinkle the crabs abundantly on top with Maryland-style spice (see recipe below); really cake that powder on. Place another layer of crabs on top of the first layer, and cake again with spice mixture on top. Repeat with more layers, if you have the room in your steamer basket. Finally, place the crab-laden steamer basket over the still-boiling water, and steam for 12 minutes, covered. Test a claw to make sure the meat is done.
Here's how to make your own spice powder for crabs:
Makes enough to spice 24 crabs
1 cup Old Bay seasoning
1/2 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons ground ginger
2 tablespoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon powdered mustard
1 tablespoon whole yellow mustard seed
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1. Place all of the ingredients into a small mixing bowl. Use a fork to combine them into a homogeneous spice blend. Use immediately or store, covered well, for six months.
Alternatively, you could buy a spice blend for crabs — and there are plenty of great ones from Maryland! My recent favorite, a new discovery (J. O. Brand Seasoning $5.99 for 16-oz..), is sold by a Maryland company called The Crab Place. It is super-bright, very celery-seed-rich, and quite salty. You can order it by visiting: www.crabplace.com
Serving the crabs
Now here’s how to serve these crabs in the true Maryland tradition. Line your table with several layers of newspaper, or wide brown paper from a roll. Make sure the table holds plenty of the following: wooden crab mallets (for cracking the claws), serrated knives (for cutting open the bodies and helping with the picking), rolls of paper towels (this is one messy event.) Don't worry about the discarded shells; they simply get piled up on the newspaper, which you roll up afterward for an easy clean-up.
Do you need garnishes/condiments?
In Maryland's crab houses, they aren't served — but you could consider lemon wedges, melted butter, and saucers with more of the Crab House Spice Blend in them.
Once again, crab-eating in Maryland is a fairly austere affair, with the crabs themselves getting the focus. But, if you're up for it, accompanying platters of cole slaw, potato salad, french fries, steaming corn on the cob, and fresh sliced summertime tomatoes would be great. And don't forget icy pitchers of beer!
How to eat the crabs
The hardest part of the Maryland crab feast for beginners is getting at the crab meat; the sweet lumps inside blue crabs are the most delicious crab pickin's in the world, but, small as those nuggets are, and tucked away as they are, they are devilishly difficult to get at.
For starters, pull off all of the crab's little legs; if the crabs are sizeable, it's good to run the legs through your teeth, extracting sweet bits of meat. Then pull off the two large claws. To eat them, you pound them lightly with your mallet — don't crush them, or the meat and shell will be crushed together. Just break the shell, then, working with a knife, a fork, a pick, or your fingers, extract the meat.
Now comes the main event. Pick up your legless, clawless crab and stand it on its bottom edge, so that the white underbelly is facing you. The design on the underbelly that looks like a baseball catcher's chest protector should have an arrow-shaped flap on it that's pointing downward. With your fingers, grab that arrow, force it out of its groove, grab it with your fingers, then, pulling upward, rip back and remove the whole "chest protector" — a triangular piece of soft shell. Now you're ready to go in.
Keep the crab standing on the same bottom edge. Planting one thumb at the top of the crab on the underbelly side, and another thumb on the top of the crab on the red top shell side, pry the crab open by moving your thumbs in opposite directions. Push hard, if you must. Suddenly, the crab will pop open, and you'll have two pieces: the nearly empty top shell (which is red on the outside), and the white underbelly shell, filled with cartilage and crab meat.
I like to start with the nearly empty red shell. I describe it as "nearly" empty because it may have in it some roe (reddish-orange, absolutely delicious), and some tomalley. The latter, to the crab connoisseur, is also absolutely delicious — though I've seen crab neophytes quake at this soft mass of yellow-green material. For my money, it has more flavor than any other part of the crab. I sometimes take a spoon and eat it by itself, or along with the roe, or as a kind of sauce to spread on the pieces of crab meat that I extract later. Use your spoon to probe every corner of the "empty" red shell, looking for tomalley.
When it comes to the meat-stuffed underbelly shell, there are literally scores of techniques that Marylanders employ to get at the meat. I like to start by breaking the body in half; you grip the left-hand side firmly in one hand, the right-hand side firmly in the other, and snap the body open. Each half is identical, and requires the same technique. Basically, each half is filled with what I think of as hard chambers, and the chambers contain the meat. The largest chamber, on each half, is right near the part of the body where the large leg once was; you can recognize the area by the large hole you made when removing the leg. A good way to get at this chamber, and all chambers, is to gently saw it open with your serrated knife (some like to pick it open with their fingers, others prefer to crack it open with their teeth.) Extract the meat and enjoy! Keep going until you've worked your way around all the chambers of both halves. Then, your lips a-tingle, reach for another crab and start over again!
Where to get the crabs and meat
Here are the sources for all the great crabs that I discussed on the "Today" show:
For cooked Snow Crab:
Simply Seafood Superstore
1111 NW 45th Street, Suite B
Seattle, WA 98107
For cooked Alaskan Red King Crab and Dungeness Crab:
City Fish Co.
1535 Pike Place
Seattle, WA 98101
For cooked Jonah Crab:
The Crab Broker
P.O. Box 80150
Las Vegas, NV 89180
For live blue crabs:
The Crab Place
384 West Main Street
Crisfield, MD 21817
For “Maryland Style Spiced” cooked blue crabs:
4100 Northpoint Blvd.
Baltimore, MD 21222
For Louisiana “Crab Boil Style” cooked blue crabs:
8006 West Metairie Avenue
Metairie, LA 70003
For unpasteurized fresh jumbo lump crab meat:
New York, NY 10023
For canned crab meat (backfin crab meat, special crab meat, claw crab meat and jumbo lump crab meat):
Phillips Foods, Inc.
1215 E. Fort Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21230
David Rosengarten's Favorite Crab Cakes
This delicious recipe was recently revised from the one that appeared in "Taste" (1998, Random House, New York, NY). I've made a few small changes that I think make these light, fluffy, crab-intense cakes even better:
Makes 12 crab cakes
4 cups backfin crab meat from a refrigerated container
4 cups jumbo lump crabmeat from a refrigerated container
8 tablespoons Hellmann's or Best Foods mayonnaise
1/4 cup melted unsalted butter
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Old Bay, or Maryland crab seasoning, to taste
8 slices Wonder bread
4 eggs, beaten
lard and vegetable oil for deep-frying
1. In a large mixing bowl, toss together the backfin and jumbo lump crab meat. Toss gently with mayonnaise, melted butter and lemon juice until well-blended. Season to taste with crab seasoning (I use only a speck), and salt. Make sure to keep the crab lumps whole.
2. Trim the crusts from the bread; discard, or reserve for another use. Tear the remaining bread into little pieces (about 20 pieces per slice); handle the bread lightly, so the pieces remain fluffy and don't flatten out.
3. Place the bread pieces on top of the crab meat mixture in the mixing bowl. Pour the beaten eggs over them, then immediately toss the crab meat mixture lightly until the bread is evenly distributed. Allow the mixture to sit in the refrigerator for a few hours.
4. When you're ready to cook, place a large, heavy-bottomed sauté pan over medium-high heat; the pan should have enough room for four crab cakes. Add enough lard and vegetable oil (in 50/50 proportion) to create a one-inch depth of oil.
5. When the oil is medium-hot, quickly shape 1/3 of the crab mixture with your hands into 4 cakes, each roughly the size and shape of a large hamburger. Gently place the cakes in the hot oil, making sure to preserve their shapes. Fry for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the cakes are just golden on one side. Flip them carefully with a spatula and fry on the other side for 3 to 4 minutes. After about 8 minutes, the cakes should be golden-brown on all sides and heated through (you want the pieces of bread inside to virtually disappear). Remove the 4 crab cakes from the pan, and place them on paper towels. Keep warm in a low oven, or serve immediately. Repeat twice, until 12 crab cakes are cooked.
For more information about David Rosengarten and The Rosengarten Report, please visit his web site at: www.davidrosengarten.com