By stretching crab, you can save a bushel

Restaurateur, cooking show host and author John Shields will appear at the Food & Wine Festival this weekend.
Restaurateur, cooking show host and author John Shields will appear at the Food & Wine Festival this weekend. (Michael Temchine for The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Whether the Chesapeake Bay is having a good crab year or not, a pound of pristine Maryland jumbo lump represents no small investment. Thus far, the going rate in the Washington area ranges from $23.95 to $39.99.

Indicators point to a promising season, but John Shields remembers the bountiful catches of his childhood. If anyone deserves to have sprouted a pair of honorary crab claws, it would be the 59-year-old chef-restaurateur, cookbook author and cooking-show host who is known as the culinary ambassador of the Bay.

As a boy growing up near Baltimore, he was treated to plenty of family crab feasts and one-pot meals. His mother, widowed when Shields was 6, had to feed five children and a collection of elderly relatives. He took note of the creative ways in which any amount of crab could be made to go a bit further.

These days, Shields keeps an eye on the bottom line at Gertrude's, his restaurant in the Baltimore Museum of Art, and still thinks about ways to stretch the protein.

"It's not a matter of cost," he said by phone last week. Americans have "gotten so protein-centered . . . it's done a lot of damage in so many ways. If every restaurant in our region wanted to use Chesapeake Bay blue crabmeat, it would be impossible."

When Shields was filming one of his two television series, shown on PBS, he met a Tangier Island resident who said crab-stretching strategies inspired lots of the traditional recipes in his community. "The interesting thing, full circle, is how we're being told to eat now: more plant-based," Shields says.

In researching an upcoming 20th-year revision of his "The Chesapeake Bay Cookbook" (Addison-Wesley, 1990), the chef found solutions in family recipes. The crowds at this weekend's Food & Wine Festival at National Harbor will get to watch him make a few of his favorites.

"My Aunt Bessie made a custardy crab casserole with onions, mushrooms and chunks of old bread," he says. "She could really cook, even when times were lean." For an Eastern Shore-style soup, Shields increased the number of servings and regional flavor by adding okra, bell pepper and rice: "It tastes traditional, like Southern Maryland."

Summer is when folks like to buy steamed crabs by the bushel. But experts know that the season for hard-shells runs well into November and that the best time to buy them is the fall. "They are cheapest, fattest and biggest right after Labor Day," says Mick Blackistone, who lives 25 miles south of Annapolis and edits the Waterman's Gazette, a monthly publication for the Maryland Watermen's Association.

By-the-dozen prices can vary day by day. A quick survey late last week found $85 for jumbos -- the largest size -- at Cantler's Riverside Inn in Annapolis, $100 at Bethesda Crab House in Bethesda, $96 at Ernie's Crab House in Alexandria and $55 at Captain White's Seafood in Southwest Washington.

"I go to the Outer Banks in late September and get a dozen for $24," says Jeff Tunks, executive chef of Passion Food Hospitality, the restaurant group that includes DC Coast, Acadiana, PassionFish, Ceiba and TenPenh. Typically, he says, crab prices will go down over the next several months, even in the face of the oil-spill disaster that is already hurting the livelihood of many Louisiana fishermen. "It's a pretty wide crabbing area down there," Tunks says. "We'll get crabs from Texas and the western part of the gulf. Oysters and shrimp are another story."

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, more than a third of the 155.3 million-pound U.S. blue crab harvest in 2008 came from Maryland (24 percent) and Virginia (11 percent). Statistics due out next month should reflect 2009's even stronger numbers, says Noreen Eberly, director of the seafood marketing and aquaculture program at Maryland's department of agriculture. But the state with the single biggest haul of blue crabs was Louisiana.

Blackistone says Chesapeake watermen are starting to catch more crabs each week, except in areas of the upper bay where algae have fouled the water from the surface to the bottom. Steve Lay of Havre de Grace, Md., a waterman for 40 years, normally begins crabbing on May 1 in areas near the Aberdeen Proving Ground. During the past eight years, he says, a particularly fine, cottonlike kind of filament algae has gotten so invasive that he cannot put in his fish nets or eel and crab pots.

"It's on the lines. You can't shake it off; you have to power-wash to remove it," he says with obvious frustration. "The crabs won't go in pots with algae."

Tom Parham, director of tidewater ecosystem assessment for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, confirms that there are still problematic areas in the upper Chesapeake. But he says the water's nitrogen levels -- made worse by factors including runoff from farms, wastewater treatment plants and vehicle emissions -- have decreased by 25 percent since 1985, and he says more beneficial underwater grasses are growing where Lay likes to catch crabs.

Until crab production kicks into high gear, those stretching strategies such as chef Shields's family recipes can help fill culinary gaps. Blackistone offered a novel method of augmenting soft-shells, his favorite: "A cook told me he puts a tablespoon or two of lump crab on top of his soft-shell crabs before he cooks them, kind of like a flounder 'stuffed' with crab might look. In all my years, I've never thought of that."


Bessie's Crab Pudding

Eastern Shore-Style Crab Soup

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