So this past September (I KNOW! I have been absent for a while, but it was all for a good cause—more on that later) I was honored to serve for a second year as a Judge at the Maryland Seafood Festival Crab Soup Cook Off.
Folks who don’t live in Maryland may not understand just how deeply rooted crabs are in Chesapeake native culture.
It’s deep folks. Like mother’s milk. Or life-blood. Like the ocean abyss deep.
Cream of Crab Soup, Vegetable Crab Soup, Crab Cakes, Crab Omelettes, Crab Benedict, Crab Quiche, Crab Imperial….
Crab is King in these parts. Unless you are eating She-Crab, but we will get to that another day…..
The Crab Soup Cook Off is Serious Business for crab eaters and crab cookers alike. Hundreds of people line up before the gates are opened. Chefs from across the Chesapeake region clamor to participate even though it means they will serve gallons and gallons of not inexpensive soup to folks who expect bottomless “samples” of each entry.
This year, I was assigned Cream of Crab Soup. The most contentious contest of all, which suits my lightening rod self just fine. Chef Charles McKnew of Ports of Call in Annapolis told me: “The best award at the Crab Soup Cook-Off is Cream of Crab Soup. At the end of the day, winning for Cream of Crab is what matters to the restaurants and it’s the People’s Choice Award especially, that counts.”
Not that being a judge is completely meaningless next to the Voice of The People, or anything….
Chef should know though: he’s been to the festival more times than he can count and has won the coveted People’s Choice Award at least five times.
This year he won 1st place from the Judges (ahem, ahem) and 3rd place from the People (lousy palates is all I can say LOL).
So just what is the secret to McKnew’s success?
He’s been making the same recipe for twenty years. He says he doesn’t get bored of it. “My wife works for the Post Office, so I have a good idea of what day-after-day drudgery is,” he says.
Happiness is directly linked to perspective, I’ve always believed.
Cream of Crab Soup requires a roux. Technically, a roux is a mix of equal parts butter and flour well combined and cooked in a heavy pot. It is primarily used to thicken a sauce or soup. You may recognize it as the base for homemade gravy. Here is a great tutorial for making roux.
The key for crab soup roux, McKnew says, is melting the butter, whisking the flour in briskly, and cooking the mixture until the flour is nutty but not browned.
It is really easy to scorch a roux. Don’t feel bad if you mess it up. It’s just butter and flour. You don’t even need fancy butter. Just try again. Hot pan, melted butter, stir, stir, stir until it’s creamy brown and smells so rich and good… and don’t burn.
After the roux, cream is added. Some folks use half-n-half. Others use heavy cream. Some people mix the two. I say more cream than half-n-half, but really it’s a personal thing. I like to add heated cream to my soup—it’s less of a shock to the roux. If you don’t heat the cream first, turn the burner down and slowly let your soup base warm. You have to take my word for it and heat slowly, or the butter and cream could break, the separation resulting in an unattractive, unappetizing dish.
Don’t scorch the soup on the bottom of the pan because all that crunchy brown fond will get stirred into the creamy, white perfection of the soup. You will be able to see it, and worse to taste it. I can tell you that scorching put one contestant in last place this year!
The piece de resistance is the crabmeat. What to use since crab is so expensive? Chef uses a combination of lump and claw meat. “This way you get the large chunks plus a bit of crab in every bite.”
McKnew’s roux is made with around 10 pounds (that’s 40 sticks, folks!) of butter and 64 quarts of half-n-half. He seasons his soup with a combination of Old Bay, tempered with dry mustard that is quieted with mace. When he warms up the soup at the Festival, he adds about 40 pounds of lump crab to it. His secret ingredient is a hefty hit of sherry as garnish.
Here is Chef’s recipe, which I hope you will try before crab season runs out and you have to rely on the frozen stuff to get you through…NOT that frozen is bad….just that for Marylanders, whose obsession with crab far exceeds anything I’ve experienced outside of New York bagels, fresh is best.Feel free to share...