Cooking crab, or how I learned to be a little more like Mark Zuckerberg
Shhh, please don’t tell, but I never cooked and ate a crab before this weekend. Crab cakes at weddings are about my only prior experience with what I generally think of as aquatic spiders. This admission might be sacrilege to my Eastern Mass. relations, but what can I say – I grew up Out West, and we’re pretty uncivilized out here. Some of us even say “scallop” with an “æ”.
Anyway, not only had I never cooked crab, I had never killed an animal for food. I’m not about to go full Zuckerberg, but I do want to be more ethical in my meat consumption. As I do not raise any animals or go hunting (yet), crustaceans are an available first step towards taking responsibility for my part in omnivory.
Live seafood is one of those foods in the store that always captivated me. Like eggplant. I suppose every family has the foods they eat, and they ones they don’t, either by design, or because they wouldn’t think of doing so. Eggplant was definitely in the latter category for us growing up, and chicken hearts was in the former. Seafood was some in-between category – too fishy to be desired by my father, and too strange to be considered really food-like by us kids. I carried that attitude on into my own adulthood. Even working across the street from the famous fish-throwing stall in Pike Place Market didn’t tempt me to buy fish, because, what would I do with it?
I’ve worked to rectify this cooking deficit over time, but slowly. My baked salmon is just fine, but I’d have no clue what to do with white fish. I got my husband hooked on pickled herring from the local sustainable fish market, and I noticed myself eying the California-caught Dungeness crab in the window.
This weekend, we finally pulled the trigger and bought two good-sized crabs, all brown and strong and armored. We fessed up to being complete newbs, and got tips from the shopkeeper on how to cook the not-so-little beasts.
The crabs hung out in a paper bag in the back seat, then in the fridge, then in the freezer to get numbed once we turned water on to boil. Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food had some extra tips on crab cooking, and serving. Both she and the fishmonger recommended salting the water to the level of seawater, and cooking the crabs for 12 minutes.
The crabs were still moving, albeit sluggishly, when it was time for the the pot. R manned the camera while I grabbed the first crab by the back of the shell, far from the grabby front claws. Holding it was easier than I expected, and into the pot it went. The second grab was a different story. Picking it up was easy, but it didn’t want to go. The clever creature grabbed onto the paper bag with one of its front claws, and refused to let go. I eventually had to rip the crab out, scrap of bag and all.
He released the paper as soon as he hit the water. R and I stood and watched the fight go out of the legs of both crabs, as they writhed in the boiling water for less than a minute. It was sobering, after the somewhat comical spectacle of the paper bag grab. We thanked the crabs for feeding us. It felt like the right thing to do.
Cleaning the now-red crustaceans took over an hour. The directions in The Art of Simple Food were sparse. I would have appreciated more “yes, really do get rid of all that gross looking stuff”, or “yes, there will be some gross-looking yellow goo, but rinse it off and it’ll be okay”. Thank goodness for YouTube:
The fresh crab was sweet, moist, and delicate. Lightly salted and dipped in butter, it was easily one of the tastiest meals I’ve eaten in some time. Possibly since the Christmas rabbit.
The next day, I made crab cakes from the remaining meat. Mixed with chives and mayonnaise, and covered in bread crumbs, the crab was a little chewier, but still delicious.
This crab-venture has left me with two lasting impressions:
1) Who first thought “let’s cook and break apart this grabby, leg-filled sea-thing, and eat the relatively small amount of meat inside”? It must have been starving people, right? Or people with no way of catching other fish? We got about half a pound from each crab, and for an hour’s work, that’s a tiny return on effort.
2) Killing your food before you eat it is sobering. It made me that much more aware of how precious the meat was. We did not waste a single gram.
Now, to learn to catch crab myself…