There are three– no four or more– reasons crabs are on my mind today:
#1 I went to the most FABULOUS dinner party last weekend and the passed hors de’hoevre was my friend Ken Upton’s unbelievable crab cake, served so simply on a cracker, with an exquisite champagne.
#2 We visited the Outer Banks, North Carolina (OBX) where the crabs were prolific and #2 was obsessed with pulling them in one by one, then watching them die a hot, boiling death on the stovetop. Little boys, man…..gotta love ’em.
#3 I was invited to visit Executive Chef Charles McKnew at Ports of Call in Annapolis, where I was reminded that Crab Season in Maryland is almost over, but you can still get good pasteurized fresh crab for amazing dishes, many of which happen to be perfect as holiday fare.
#4 #1 is learning about water conservation in the Chesapeake with Girl Scouts. We recently talked about the local crab scene. The season for catching Maryland crabs ends in early December, which makes me feel a little pressure about sourcing good crab and using it in all my favorite dishes….stat!
Crab cakes, crab soup, crab balls, cream of crab, Maryland crab, crab Imperial, crab, crab, crab. It is a regional staple. Maryland crabs are the of stuff love, memories and parties around here. They can make or break your next relationship, soiree or even midnight crab cake and a beer snack. (I don’t have crab cakes as a midnight snack, but I know people who do….)
Chef Charles McKnew is a native Marylander and grew up around the water outside Annapolis. You would think he would be tired of making, much less eating crab, but claims that he still loves an old fashioned weekend crab feast and that he isn’t sick of using crab in his restaurant. He goes through no less than 50 pounds every week!
I recently visited McKnew in his kitchen, where the dining area is notably decorated with numerous plaques recognizing his many first place wins at The Capital’s annual Crab Soup Cook Off, a popular event at the Maryland Seafood Festival. This year McKnew won third place from the judges, but first place from the People’s Choice for his traditional cream of crab soup. He’s won this award several years in a row, and says he hasn’t tired of the elation and sense of accomplishment that goes along with the plaque. You can read about the contest and how incredibly hard he works just to get his soup to it here.
I would think that if you are so used to winning, it would be quite the plummeting fall to lose. Especially when your friends and family are watching and your employees who’ve cheered and helped you along and really want that win are biting nails over your performance. McKnew admits that the anxiety can be tiring. Even so, he says he won’t quit until the day he does lose, so I think we will be seeing him around for some years to come.
When I was at Ports of Call I was fortunate enough to meet two very interesting customers. One was an old retired Catholic Priest. Barely able to walk, he still visits the restaurant with his friend, an equally elderly Jewish businessman, every. single. week. They are devoted fans. Especially of the crab cakes. They waxed poetic about McKnew’s crab dishes and say they bring in all their friends from the old folks home to try them.
Actually, Chef says he is way over the soup. I don’t blame him. With that in mind, he’s been working on some new menu items that launched this fall. He let me taste each one, and I have to say, one was better than the next. I couldn’t possibly choose one to pick as a favorite. They were all homey, rich, comforting and delicious. And not difficult to make!!!
Below are McKnew’s tips for working with crab.
Here is a link to several of his latest crab recipes. Seriously, these are perfect for the holiday table, not only because they are delicious, but also because they are special, impressive, seasonal, local and achievable. Like I always say: Bonus, Bonus and BONUS!
- If you are buying crab to use in preparations like salad, Imperial or sauté, it is paramount to use high quality meat. “It’s like steak—you could spend three-quarters of the money and get an old piece of leather or you can spend the whole amount and get something good”.
- Buying local is the only way to ensure quality product. He recommends Annapolis Seafood. I like Wild Country Seafood in Eastport, but they have very limited hours this time of year. McKnew says some area grocers are bringing in good product…I’m not too sure about that. I’ve seen some sketchy looking stuff around town. Try Whole Foods Market, Graul’s or Costco, and make sure its actual Maryland crab. Some products are actuallyAsian crab, literally dipped in chemicals then shipped to Maryland for canning. Because the product is finished in Maryland it can use the Made in Maryland label. Not the same thing at all. And a huge slap to the hard working Maryland crabbers and pickers who are trying to earn an honest living.
- Use fresh, unfrozen crab. Frozen crab is no bueno at Ports of Call, though McKnew says that with no small measure of reticence, since he knows some folks do freeze their crab and don’t seem to mind. “Frozen meat might work in casseroles or some soups, but it really isn’t best for dishes where the large bites of crab need to stand out”.
- Use jumbo lump for most dishes. Fall crabs are the best crabs because they’ve been putting on meat and fat in advance of hibernation. “The meat is just perfect this time of year. The fresh jumbo lump meat you can find now holds together well and offers full bites of flavor”, McKnew told me. You can use other grades of crab for applications like soup, but that jumbo lump is best when the crab is the highlight of the dish. Learn about how to buy whole crabs and how to select grades of meat.
- Work gently and delicately with the crab meat. Unless you are lucky enough to be catching your own crabs, and in that case unless you are willing to pick the crabs to make a recipe, most folks buy cans of local pasteurized crab. It’s expensive. And delicate. “You really have to be careful with handling the pieces of crab”, McKnew advises. “You don’t want to break up the pieces while stirring or mixing. This would affect the flavor and the texture of the dish, and you could end up with small, mealy shreds instead of full bites”.
- Always add the crab at the end of a recipe. “Pasteurized crab is already cooked, so you really only need to bring it up to temperature”, he says.
Do you have a favorite local crab recipe? If so, please email me or send me a message on Facebook.
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