By Rosie Hawthorne on May 31, 2011
The Atlantic blue crab.
It’s crab season and I have the luxury of being able to walk out in my backyard, bait a crab pot, throw it into the canal, and come back a few hours later to bring in dinner. I’m also able to dine on one of my favorite Outer Banks delicacies – soft shell crabs.
Oh, blue crab. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love you simply steamed, picked, and dipped in melted butter, sucking the sweet meat out of the legs, butter dripping in rivulets down my chin. I love you showcased in a delicate, creamy chowder. I love you with melted cheeses, oozing out of a crispy crab Rangoon. I love you gently pressed into a crab cake and lightly battered and fried. I love you bursting with flavors in a crab meat boule. I love you, soft shell crab, subtly battered and deep-fried.
Now, for some crabbie facts. The blue crab, native to the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia to Argentina, is indigenous to all North Carolina coastal waters, with the largest populations living in the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. Of course, there are regulations to harvesting the blue crab. According to the NC Fisheries Recreational Coastal Waters Guide for Sports Fisherman, there is a minimum size limit of a 5-inch carapace width and a maximum carapace width of 6 ¾ inches. Bag limits are 50 crabs a day and no more than 100 crabs per vessel per day. We are allowed one crab pot per household.
To identify the sex of your crabs (I prefer to know the gender of what I’m eating.), male crabs have blue-tipped claws and females have red-tipped claws, like painted fingernails. There is another way to sex crabs – by the shape of their aprons.
This is the apron of a mature female crab, also known as a Sook. Her apron is bell-shaped or like an inverted U and her abdomen is free to open in order to mate and carry eggs. Also notice her red-tipped claws.
This is a Sally, or a she-crab. Sally is an immature adolescent. Her apron is more triangular than that of Sookie, resembling an upside-down V. Sally’s apron is tightly sealed to her abdomen and won’t open until she is ready to mate, after her pubertal molt.
Meet Jimmy Crab with his blue-tipped claws. Jimmy’s apron is shaped like an upside-down T, or as some people euphemistically refer to as the Washington Monument. It’s more difficult to tell the sexual maturity of male crabs.This is a pregnant crab, called a Sponge Crab. The fertilized eggs are carried under the abdomen. In about two weeks, the eggs will be released into the water to hatch. At first, the egg mass is bright orange. As the embryos mature and consume the egg yolk, the mass becomes darker.
Blue crabs require both salty ocean water and brackish inshore waters to complete their life cycle. Mating occurs primarily in brackish, relatively low-salinity, waters, generally in areas where the females go to molt-shallow, upper areas of estuaries. The female then travels to high-salinity waters to spawn.
Females mate only once in their lives, immediately following their pubertal molt, when they become sexually mature and are known as Sooks. When a mature Jimmy encounters Sally who’s about to shed into Sookie, he performs a rather elaborate courtship dance. Sookie allows a precopulatory embrace and Jimmy will “cradle carry” her for 2 to 7 days until shedding is imminent.
This serves a two-fold purpose. First, Jimmy is able to protect Sally from predators while she’s vulnerable and second, it assures Jimmy he will be there for the molting process, which may take several hours to complete, marking Sally’s transition into sexual maturity. Sally is now Sookie. This is also known as a terminal molt, since Sookie probably won’t shed again. The sperm is stored inside the female in special receptacles, or sacs, and is believed to be viable for as long as the female is alive.
A female may produce many fertilized egg masses from this single mating during her lifetime. Following mating, Sookie remains cradled by Jimmy, until her shell has enough time to fully harden, about 48 hours.
Once released, Sookie migrates to higher-salinity waters so that she may spawn. During this migration, the ovaries begin to develop and fertilization will occur one to two months later. Spawning will occur two to nine months after mating. And Crabbie will be on my plate in about a year or two.
Now that you know more about the sex life of a blue crab than you ever cared to know, let’s eat some crabs.
The simplest and, in my opinion, the best way to savor blue crabs, is simply to steam them. The only accoutrements you need are some melted butter, lemon juice, and possibly some Old Bay Seasoning. Depending on the size of the crab and how good a picker you are, figure on 15-20 crabs for a pound of crab meat. To steam, pour about an inch of water in the pot with the crabs, cover, and if you like, sprinkle some Old Bay over top. Bring to a boil, steaming for about 12 minutes. If you’re a newbie to crabs, get someone who knows to show you how to pick them, else you’ll never get inside to the meat. Spread out a newspaper on your table and toss the remains. The newspaper tablecloth makes for an easy clean-up. Eating crabs this way is a primal experience.
Now, if you’ve managed to pick the crabs and actually amass a good amount of meat, then you could make crab chowder, crab Rangoon, crab cakes, or a crab meat boule.
With every spoonful, you get a mouthful of intense crab flavor.
To extract every bit of crab flavor, I first make a broth out of the picked crab shells. Put the shells in a pot over medium heat with butter and oil. Sauté, crushing the shells with a wooden spoon, for about five minutes. Add a cup of white wine, and water to cover, throw in a few bay leaves and peppercorns, and continue crushing shells with a wooden spoon throughout cooking to release more crab flavor. Bring to the low side of simmer and never let the stock boil. Boiling releases impurities. Barely simmer for about 30 minutes. Strain the broth through cheesecloth and reserve.
1 pound crab meat
6 slices bacon, chopped
1 potato, diced
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, sliced on the diagonal
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 bay leaves
2 TB butter
4 TB flour
About 1 quart crab broth
About 1 pint heavy cream
1-2 TB sherry (to taste)
1 TB each minced green, yellow, orange, and red peppers
Freshly ground salt and pepper (to taste)
Fresh thyme, tarragon, parsley
Croutons, if desired.
For the chowder, chop bacon and fry until almost crisp. Melt in butter and add diced potato, chopped onion, celery, carrot, garlic, and bay leaves. Sauté for about 2 minutes. Add in 4 TB flour and cook a minute or two to get rid of the raw taste. Slowly add in about a quart of the crab broth, scraping up the goody bits in the bottom of the pan, and stirring to thicken. Cook until potato is tender, but never go over a simmer. Add in about 2 cups heavy cream, until you get the consistency you like, and heat through. Gently add in a pound of crab meat, being careful not to break up the chunks. Add a splash of sherry and a tablespoon each minced green, yellow, orange, and red peppers. Add freshly ground salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into bowls and serve with sprigs of fresh thyme and tarragon, a sprinkling of fresh chopped parsley, and croutons, if desired.
A crab cake should be all about the crab, not the filler.
Crab Cake Ingredients:
6 Ritz crackers or Club crackers, crushed
1 heaping TB sweet red pepper, minced
1 TB scallions, minced
1 egg, beaten
A few shakes Old Bay Seasoning
2 TB mayonnaise
Sprinkling of cayenne
2 cups crab meat
Combine first seven ingredients, then gently mix in the crab meat. Do not over mix the crab. You want lumps. Form into patties. I use biscuit cutters to form my crab cakes. Simply press the crab mixture into the cutters and you have perfect cakes.
At this point I like to put my cakes in the freezer for about an hour. The freezing helps the crab meat hold together better; else, you’d need more breading to bind it.
For the batter:
2 parts semolina flour
1 part Panko bread crumbs
Mix completely and coat the cakes with the breading mixture.
Add equal parts butter (I use Land o’ Lakes Unsalted.) and olive oil (I use Bertolli’s Extra Light.) to your skillet over medium high heat. The butter is for flavor; the oil is to raise the smoke point. Sauté 2-3 minutes each side, until nicely browned. Drain and serve with your favorite tartar sauce or remoulade.
Crab Rangoon was first served in America during the 1950’s from a recipe invented at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco. It was listed on the menu as an old Burmese recipe, although there is no proof of that. Rangoon is also known as Yangon, the former capital of Burma, which is now called Myanmar. It is doubtful that Crab Rangoon is of Asian origin since cream cheese is virtually nonexistent in Asian cuisines. Crab Rangoon is more than likely a uniquely American concoction, taking a little bit of Asian cuisine (wonton) and a little bit of this culture.
Most Crab Rangoons I’ve had don’t have enough crab for my tastes. And usually, they don’t even have crab meat. They use faux krab. My Crab Rangoons are all about the crab.
4 ounces cream cheese
3 ounces Montrachet Chevre cheese
2 ounces shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Few shakes of Tabasco
2 tsp soy sauce
1 scallion, minced
1 pound crab meat
Mix first six ingredients, then carefully add in crab meat.
Place a scoop of crab meat mixture on a wonton.
Moisten edges and crimp together.
Deep fry in hot oil until they are a delicious golden brown.
Serve with a sprinkling of minced peppers and red onion with your favorite dipping sauces.
Crab Meat Boule
This is an easy, do-ahead appetizer that’s sure to please. Serve this at a party and there will be no leftovers. Or you could serve this with a salad for a lovely meal.
Ingredients for crab meat boule:
1 loaf boule (French for ball. It’s that round loaf in the bakery section of your supermarket. Ideally, you could make your own.) Slice the top off and tear out bread pieces in the center, leaving a nice base and sides. Place boule and torn bread pieces on baking sheet.
1 pound crab meat
½ stick butter
2 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces Brie
1 scallion, minced
1 TB minced red onion
3 TB minced multi-colored peppers
1 slice Provolone
Mix together the butter, cream cheese, and Brie, and melt in the microwave.
Squeeze in juice of ½ lemon and ½ orange.
Gently mix in the crab meat and pour mixture into scooped-out boule.
Arrange the torn bread pieces around the boule and bake in a 350 degree oven until crab meat is heated through and the torn pieces of bread are toasty. Add in a tablespoon of sherry and gently stir. Top with half the scallions, peppers, and red onion.
Add Provolone slice and sprinkle remaining minced scallion, red onion, and minced peppers over top. Melt the provolone and serve.
All this crabalicious deliciosity should tide you over until I show you how to cook soft shells.
Soft shells merit their very own column.
Please visit with Rosie at KitchensAreMonkeyBusiness.
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