Bloke in the Kitchen. Picking fresh crab

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

(Up to your eyeballs in) Fresh Crab

Don’t worry, this is not difficult and the instructions are quite brief. But first, I would like to tell you a story. If you just want the recipe, skip down to Ingredients.

When I was a kid, living in Guernsey, my brothers and sister and I went to the beach every day in the summer holidays, and the whole family would spend Sundays down there. Twenty minutes’ walk, seven on a bike, two in a car. When the tides were right we would pass the time shrimping and cockling.

When the tide was down (like many Guernsey people, for me the tide comes up and goes down, not in and out) we would take our shrimping nets and frisk the long seaweed in the shallow pools near the water’s edge. Shove the net in and bring it back slightly raised to catch any shrimps that were hiding in the weed. Put them in a bucket of seawater and when we had collected enough, take them up to where the family was camped.

For the cockles we would take a garden hoe or rake and again just frisk the surface of the sand, a few inches deep, and see if we could find any of the little clams.

When we had the food we would build a little fire from driftwood, sit an old saucepan on it and quickly boil the shrimps and cockles, then eat them with our hands, with some French bread and perhaps a bit of salad.

As the sun went down we would end a long, warm day huddled at the top of the beach, feeling like the Swiss Family Robinson. There might be real life to contend with next day, but for now that didn’t count. The sea was lolling around down on the sand and lapping at the stone pier, and we might get one last swim in before we went home.

crab 1
A Guernsey-style spider crab. It’s one of our ‘things’, along with ormers (abalone to you) and beanjar (sort of pork and beans)

An alternative to this was for my father, an avid skindiver right up to his seventies, to put on his mask, snorkel and flippers and go in search of spider crabs. These are pinky-orange, rounder and knobblier than the smooth, oval, dark red crabs more common in the UK and France. We called those chancres, the French word for crabs, and pronounced shankers.

crab 2
You’ll find these in many supermarkets in the UK, and something similar elsewhere. Lots of meat in those claws

You have to know where to look, because crabs don’t just crawl out of the sea looking for a human being. My Dad showed me where to find them (sorry, that’s a family secret), when (early summer) and at what stage of the tide (fairly low) and I passed the knowledge on to my sons. You pick your way along a rocky promontory, find an easy place to get in the water, swim out a few yards and just float there and look. As the low currents sweep the seaweed around, you might just catch a glimpse of a spider, so down you go, only six to ten feet, take it by the back of its neck and turn it upside down so it stops struggling and folds its legs up. Up to the surface, shove it into the plastic supermarket bag attached to your belt and continue looking until you have enough. And enough means one or two per person.

We found mainly females, which don’t have such big, meaty claws, but they might have the bonus of roe, in little soft lumps or hanging  like bunches of microscopic grapes.

So, if you have fresh crabs and you’re going to cook them, this is how. If yours are ready-cooked, you can skip down to preparation.

INGREDIENTS

Crabs

METHOD

Take a large pan and fill it with enough water to cover the crab. If you have a huge pan you can do more than one at a time, but don’t overcrowd it. They are best cooked the right way up and they  try to climb out as it is.

There are two schools of thought about water temperature: some favour placing the crabs into warm water so they ‘fall asleep’ before it boils. Others get it boiling and then do the deed. This may cause the legs to fall off, but you’re going to be taking them off afterwards anyway.

The meat in a crab is sparse and flaky, so it doesn’t need much cooking. Five minutes or so in boiling water; if it’s a bit bigger, give it a bit longer.

Then take it out using tongs, pliers etc. and leave it to drain and cool.

PREPARATION

If you thought it was strange to see pliers among the utensils, it’s not, because picking crabs can involve a tool box.  Once the crab is cool enough to handle, the first thing to do is break off the claws. They have knuckles every few inches and a joint where they meet the body, and that’s where you wrench them off.

Then with the crab on its back, break the body out of the shell. That means separating the cream-coloured underside where the meat is from the red armour. If you can get a thumb in there, do so, but you will probably need a knife. Force it in at the back or wherever you can around the edge and lever it out.

Make sure there is a roll of kitchen towel on the table and maybe a big bowl of warm water to rinse your fingers in.

You may want to keep the shell to serve the crabmeat in, if you are doing all the work and presenting it to your guests as a fait accompli.

If everybody is going to be involved in the preparation, make sure the table is covered with something disposable and absorbent, such as newspaper pages. And chopping boards or other solid flat surfaces would be good too.

You will need a hammer (with all the tools, obviously give them a good scrub first to make sure they’re clean) and ideally nut crackers. If you have none or only one of them, that’s where the pliers come in.

Clinging to the body is a skirt of pale, soft, fibrous things called dead men’s fingers, which are not edible. Tear them off and discard.

The body is divided into little chambers, each containing some meat. So break it into pieces with your hands or a knife, and get to work scooping the stuff out with a fork, a small knife or any long, narrow object you think will do the job. The prongs that people use to pick up corn on the cob would be good.

By this point in my Dad’s way of doing things there would be a bottle of dry white wine on the go: Muscadet, pinot grigio or something like that.

crab 3
This is someone else’s detritus. My table would feature bigger crabs, a hammer and a bottle of wine, but the general idea is the same

When you have got all you can from the body, move on to the legs, Break them at the knuckles and pull off what you can of the exposed strands, then crack them and carefully take off the fragments of shell and pick out the meat.

NOVICE TIP

This is a slow, painstaking process. It’s not like picking a lobster, where you crack it open and there’s a big lump of meat. Here it’s a little at a time. If you’re all doing this together, you can be eating buttered French bread and salady bits at the same time: avocado slices, olives, sticks of carrot and celery, with a mayonnaise and garlic dip – that sort of thing.

 

Bloke in the Kitchen. Moules Mariniere

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

mussels 2
You’re going to need a bigger pan. This one will do, but it’s a bit too full. Make sure the top layer gets plenty of the juices

Here we go again: fancy foreign stuff. But as always, this is so easy you’ll be amazed you didn’t think it up yourself.

Foreign name: what does it mean? Well, moules is mussels and mariniere means in a style associated with sailors (mariners). People living by the sea would quite likely be sailors or fishermen, and their wives would have had access to mussels because they grow naturally on rocks on the shoreline. So the train of thought centuries ago must have been: why not eat them?

THE COOKING IS NOT THE HARD PART HERE. IT’S A PIECE OF CAKE. PREPARATION IS THE THING.

COWBOY QUESTION
Q. How many mussels do you need?
A. About two cereal bowls full for each person, depending on their appetite.

You will probably be buying them from someone standing behind a counter, so you have the old-fashioned advantage of being able to ask somebody for help. If it’s an actual fishmonger, he or she will know exactly how to help you. But even a general supermarket assistant should at least be able to adapt your cereal bowl measurement. A bowlful is probably about what you would get if you scooped a load out with both hands.

Get too many rather than too few. The edible part is much smaller than the shells, and if you’ve got more than you need you can just cut down on the amount of bread you’re eating as filler.

Now, you will need a big pan, maybe a huge one if you are cooking for several people. Look at your mountain of mussels: have you got something that can handle them? You only want it half-full at the most.

Back in your kitchen, sort through the mussels by hand. They should be closed. If you find a few that are open, throw them away, because they are off, dead, poisonous. Dump any broken ones too.

Now, they have little bushy things growing out of them. These are known as beards, and you need to get rid of them. Just pull them out and discard them. Scrub the shells and if some have big barnacles, knock them off with the blunt side of a large knife (just so they don’t spoil the appearance).

Give the mussels a good rinse to get rid of any sand that may be lurking.

That’s it: you’re ready.

INGREDIENTS

Mussels

Garlic

Onions

Dry white wine (or dry cider – even better, in my opinion)

Parsley, thyme, bay leaf

Cream (not the thick stuff, just whipping cream)

French bread

METHOD

Melt some butter in the bottom of your cavernous pan (don’t get it too hot), chop the onions and garlic and throw them in along with the thyme and bay leaf. Just give it long enough for the onions to soften. Don’t let them go brown.

Chuck the mussels in and add a couple of (wine) glasses of wine or cider.

Put the lid on the pan and cook for just a few minutes, shaking or stirring a few times.

DON’T GO AWAY OR DO SOMETHING ELSE. As soon as the mussels are open, they’re done.

Add a cup of cream and some chopped parsley and mix it all up

DO NOT AUTOMATICALLY ADD SALT. The mussels will contain more than enough sea salt as it is.

Serve in big bowls with good, crunchy French bread to dip in the liquid.

SAFETY TIP

When they were cold, we threw out those that were open. Now that they are cooked, get rid of any that are not open.

mussels
Roll your sleeves up and use your hands. This is the kind of thing that gives the French their sexy reputation

COWBOY QUESTION
Q. How do you eat them? Knife and fork?
A. Pull out the mussel from one small-to-medium shell and eat it. Then use that shell with your fingers and thumb to extract the rest.

When you’ve eaten all the mussels, enjoy the juices by dipping the bread in or use a soup spoon.

Dry white wine is the traditional accompaniment, and Muscadet is the most commonly used of all. But any dry white – Pinot Grigio, Verdicchio, whatever – will be fine.

Or some dry cider, of course, especially if you have cooked with it. Technically that is moules fermiere (fermier = farmer).

Et voila, chef. Merveilleux!