For a summer feast, crabs every which way

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; E01

Reports that things are looking up for the Chesapeake Bay and that blue crabs will be big and plentiful this season sealed the deal for the subject of this month's column: a crab-athon.

The theme coincided nicely with my niece Ava's high school graduation at the beginning of Memorial Day weekend. The family, 12 in all, assembled for two days of fun. Responsibilities for Friday night's dinner fell to me, with steamed crabs at the heart of the menu. They are Ava's favorite.

No big deal, right? Just order the crabs over the phone, drive out to pick them up, and throw them onto a table covered with newspaper.

That's what amateurs might do, but Real Entertainers go the extra mile. So as a tribute to the blue crab, which is arguably Washington's preeminent, if not only, regional food, I planned to make crab hush puppies for an appetizer and serve grilled soft-shell crabs with chorizo sauce and jumbo lump crab cakes alongside the hard-shells. For side dishes: crab-feast standbys such as corn on the cob and coleslaw plus asparagus, another Ava must-have.

Having the crabs cooked professionally can be a good thing. It's not that steaming them at home is particularly difficult: You put some cooking liquid (combinations of beer, vinegar, water, wine, etc.) in a big pot, layer crabs and seasoning mix, and cook, covered, for 20 to 25 minutes. The problem is, things get trickier if you need a lot of crabs. Even if you have a pot enormous enough and a heat source capable of handling it, you wind up with uneven cooking. The crabs near the bottom can get overcooked while the ones at the top aren't cooked enough.

Save yourself the trouble and go to a vendor who has the proper facilities to do the job. In Washington, the Maine Avenue waterfront has everything you need.

Haggling works. If one vendor tells you jumbos are $55 per dozen, which they were last week, go to others and ask what they can do. Once you choose the crabs you want, they'll cook them to order with as much spice as you like. (I prefer males, extra-large or jumbo; I find them meatier, but many people like female crabs because they say they are sweeter and contain more mustard, a yellow goo that is actually a crab's hepatopancreas, a gland that serves as a liver and pancreas and therefore a filtration system for impurities. Does that sound enticing?)

From a host's perspective, the most appealing part of the crab feast-themed party is the practice of papering the table: The usual dinner party niceties of flowers and such are not required. Beer can be swigged straight from the bottle, and rolls of paper towels can take the place of cloth napkins.

Compelling as that approach was, however, I had second thoughts about certain dishes on my menu. In my zeal to impress, I had lost sight of a more important entertaining principle: Know your audience. The grilled soft-shells with chorizo sauce had gone over well at a dinner party I gave for friends from the local food scene, but persuading several children to eat molted crabs, shells and all, would be hard.

The neighbors appreciated how ground coriander complemented the crabmeat in hush puppy prototypes I offered them, but did I really want to endure the inevitable question from my father, an Alabaman who doesn't like surprises in his traditional foods: What the hell did you put in these hush puppies?

Instead, I opted to start the meal with party mix (a family addiction), chopped liver (from the freezer), hummus (from the store and prettified with olive oil, pine nuts and paprika) and baba ghanouj, a request from my sister. I'd save the hush puppies for another party.

The dinner ended up more surf and turf than ode to crab, as it turned out. The meat eaters of the family gave a thumbs up to my decision to jettison soft-shells for beef. Using the easy method chef Cathal Armstrong (Restaurant Eve, Eamonn's) had taught me, I seasoned a frenched five-pound rib roast, seared it, stuck it in a cold oven I then set at 350 degrees, and baked it for exactly 50 minutes. At that point, I turned the oven off, leaving the roast there for 70 minutes. The result was slices of perfectly medium-rare beef from edge to edge.

The fact that the roast was already done cut down on last-minute prep. I also got dessert out of the way earlier in the day by using components from the downstairs freezer, where a muffin pan full of baked, unfrosted cupcakes was stored in layers of plastic wrap. I also found plastic containers of cream cheese and chocolate frostings there, with plenty of stuff piled on top of them, no doubt to allay temptation.

Fortunately, the casual nature of the meal meant that timing didn't have to be an issue. The apps were all make-ahead. The hard-shells, coleslaw and bowls to reserve spent shells were on the table, set that morning. Just before the family came, I started a grill fire. When the time came, I handed a platter of raw asparagus to one of the guests and asked him to grill the vegetables.

As guests started to hammer away at the steamed crabs, I popped into the kitchen to melt butter for dipping, saute crab cakes, slice the roast and retrieve corn on the cob from a big pot on the stove. Then I sat down to enjoy my family.

My father marveled at my niece's fierce determination and focus as she made her way through six or seven extra-large crabs, leaving only a small pile of cleanly picked shells in front of her.

"She picks through them like a surgeon," he said. "Doesn't leave a speck of meat." Although he admired the effort, it wasn't for him: "I just don't have the patience for it."

And that's the thing about crabs. Some people relish the challenge, while others find that the payoff doesn't justify all the work. Maybe it's the puzzler in me, but I fall into the former group, using my hands, a nutcracker, a mallet and sometimes even my teeth to reach a clump of pure meat. There is something tremendously satisfying about savoring one's own effort, especially when it's dripping in melted butter.

The rewards didn't end there. For the next night, I had been asked to take an appetizer to a friend's birthday dinner. Thinking ahead, I held back some of the crab cake mixture from my family party and used it to make mini crab cakes, which I sauteed at my host's house. And all those crab shells loaded with Old Bay were used to make quarts of terrific stock, with celery, onion and thyme thrown in. I refrigerated the shells overnight in a pot with a tight-fitting lid, but you could tie them up in a double-thickness of plastic bags to keep the odor from permeating your fridge.

Freezing the stock in small amounts, say three cups, allows you to use it for a variety of applications, but I have only one in mind for summer: There's a mighty fine pot of gumbo just waiting to be made.

Recipes

Crab Hush Puppies With Old Bayonnaise

Grilled Soft-Shell Crabs With Chorizo Sauce

Breadless Crab Cakes

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