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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.