Sitting down to my first platter of crabs, I picked up my mallet and thought, “where do I start”? On the West Coast we eat Dungeness and King Crabs, which remind me of huge spiders who just happen to live in the ocean. I was a gustatory aberration, granted.
The same thought occurred when I was later asked to prepare dishes featuring Maryland crab.
To start, it’s important to know the grade of crab meat you’ll need. The Maryland Department of Agriculture offers the following general guideline.
Here is a guide:
Jumbo Lump includes the largest pieces of meat, taken from near the rearmost legs of the crustacean, with little or no shell. This is the highest, most expensive grade. It is preferable for use in recipes where appearance is important, such as crab imperial and crab salad.
Backfin or lump meat consists of fair-sized, intact chunks of meat, but is smaller than jumbo lump. It is often used in crab cakes. Although many chefs recommend jumbo lump.
Special is the smallest pieces of white body meat often combined with broken pieces and fibrous meat. Special meat comes from the smallest parts of the crab and is hard to pick, giving it the greatest potential to contain shell. It is best in crab soups, casseroles and dips.
Claw meat is the brownish meat from the claws and is best in soups.
Cocktail claw is the meat attached to a section of the pincher and is served cold with a cocktail sauce.
Male? or Female?
Male crabs are generaly preferred because they have more meat. Anyway, who would want to eat a mama crab? In fact, harvest of female crabs has been legally limited in Maryland, since the harvest numbers are some of the lowest in the past five years. The female crab, called a Sook, has an upside down bell shape. It looks alot like the Capital Building or the Liberty Bell to me.
When you go to buy a crab and you notice the bushel of live #1 Jimmies will set you back more than $100, the number is referring to the size of the crab. #1’s are the largest, meatiest and usually male crabs. #2’s are smaller, and #3’s are very small, ungraded and usually all female. When I see #3’s I wonder why they would be harvested at all, when if left in the water they could become pickable and edible #1’s.
Live crabs can survive in a stress free environment for some time. It isn’t uncommon to find a stray crab or two hiding under the seat in a boat several days after harvest. They can survive as long as they remain relatively cool and can find moisture, even if it is only morning dew.
When crabs are subjected to cool temperatures, they go to sleep, sort of. They wake up pretty fast and feisty once out of refrigeration. Even so, rotten crab meat is a nasty thing, so make sure they were kept cold wherever you buy them, and then put them in the fridge right away when you get home.
Before steaming live crabs, try “chilling” them in the refrigerator; the cold temperature renders them inactive and less feisty and anyway it seems a little more humane to dump them in boiling water when they don’t know what’s happening. An alternative it to take a sharp object, such as an ice pick, which you can quickly thrust into the area near the crab’s eyes, which perforates the brain and renders them dead immediately.
If you are going to pick your own crabs, so do very carefully, since noone wants to go out choking on crab shell. Alternatively, you can purchase pasteurized crab. I recently spoke with Bill Sieling, Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Association. He says that there is absolutely no difference in the taste profile between pasteurized and fresh crab. I am sure that once you add the crab to dip, imperial, soup or cakes that is true. Even if you serve crab over salad or an avocado, pasteurized will do. But if you are going to sit down for some simple crabmeat, please don’t do it out of the can.
Here are some crab recipes for you to try! I will post some crab cake specific recipes from my adventures at Boatyard Bar and Grill soon.
Steamed Blue Crabs From Crab Feast Mania: A Cookbook for Crab Lovers
- 1 cup seafood seasoning (Old Bay)
4 cups cider vinegar
4 cups beer
- 4 cups water
- 3 dozen live Maryland Blue hard crabs
Mix seasonings, vinegar and beer (or water) well. Heat to boiling. Add crabs, sprinkling each layer of crabs with seafood seasoning. Cover, reduce heat and simmer 25 minutes or until crabs turn red; drain and serve.
Marmadukes’ Soft Shell Crabs for Two From Crab Feast Mania: A Cookbook for Crab Lovers
This recipe was a favorite at former Eastport landmark, Marmaduke’s Restaurant and Pub.
- 2 Chesapeake Bay soft shell crabs, preferably male #1’s, cleaned
- 2-3 TB butter
- 1 TB Old Bay seasoning, or to taste
Melt butter in a pan and add Old Bay seasoning. Sauté crabs in the butter and seasoning for about 1 ½ minutes per side, adding slightly more butter and Old Bay before turning. Serve on toast, toast points or something thin and light that wont’ distract from the succulent taste of the crab.
Mimi’s Crab Imperial From Crab Feast Mania: A Cookbook for Crab Lovers.
This recipe is from Mimi Jones, a lifelong local and dedicated Rotarian who defines Annapolitan hospitality and knows how to throw a darn good party.
- ¼ cup green pepper, diced
- ¼ cup red pepper, diced
- ¼ cup onion, minced
- 1½ lbs crabmeat, picked
- 2 TB butter
- 2 TB flour
- 1 ts dry mustard
- 2 ts celery seed
- 2 ts Worcestershire sauce
- ½ ts salt
- 1/8 ts paprika
- ½ cup rich milk
- ½ cup mayonnaise
- 1 TB sherry
Melt butter in pan and cook red and green pepper and onion for 2 to 3 minutes. Blend in flour, salt, mustard, celery seed, Worcestershire and paprika. Cook for a minute and slowly stir in milk. Remove from heat and stir in mayonnaise. Stir crabmeat into cream sauce. Add sherry. Spread in shallow casserole and bake at 375° for 25 minutes.
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