IT WAS THE crab roundup that finally pushed the endurance of the doormen beyond their limit. They were convinced we'd never make it as New Yorkers, after their years of wearily loading and unloading the duffles, rods and reels, guns and shell cases, assorted baskets of produce and other necessities of our contributed, outdoor pursuits.
So when the moving van full of our belongings drove away from the apartment building on East 64th Street, the doormens' collective sigh of relief could be heard from the Hudson to the Choptank. "Moving down to the Eastern Shore of Maryland permanently, are you?" they asked, with ill-restrained glee. They were remembering our 64th Street Crab Roundup, all right.
What happened was this: We bought a bushel of crabs on the Eastern Shore, put them in the station wagon and took them back to New York, thinking how great freshly-steamed crabs would taste once in The Big Apple. Our plan was to divide the bushel of crabs with friends who had been on the trip with us.
That's what precipitated the Crab Roundup. When we removed the basket's lid, the crabs came up fighting. Understandably testy after the long ride, they taught us the true meaning of "crabby." As we tried to transfer half the crabs from the basket to a box, they clung together in an angry, clacking chain, dangling and pinching at anything in range. The chain broke, scattering outraged crabs all over the sidewalk and they went scuttling in all directions -- into the street, under parked cars, into the gutter, toward the lobby.
The doormen overcame their shock and quickly formed a crab possee, hastily armed with brooms, dustpans, newspapers, magazines, work gloves and, in the case of Sam, the most dour and dignified doorman on the East Side, his cap. Sam whooped and shouted and laughed and was last seen chasing a speedy jimmy toward Park Avenue. Passersby joined the roundup, traffic snarled, horns honked, our dog barked, a crowd gathered. We finally controlled most of the crabs, but a good many had escaped and caused some consternation among pedestrains the next morning.
While this is not the ideal introduction to a crab feast, those crabs scurrying around the sidewalk had one quality absolutely essential when dealing with hard-shell crabs: They were lively, very lively. Hardshell crabs, or blue crabs, as they are known on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, must always be cooked alive. Never, never cook a dead crab.
Summertime until fall is the season for feasting on blue crabs, which are actually greenish, but have blue claws. Live hardshell crabs can be boiled or steamed, eaten hot or cold. We'll get to the how-to of a true tidewater crabfeast, but first consider some basic facts about crabs and crabmeat.
When choosing crabs, if a choice must be made between large, lightweight crabs or smaller, heavier ones, take the heavier, smaller ones, as they'll contain more meat. Crabmeat is generally divided into three grades: lump, regular or "flakes" and claw. Lump crabmeat comes from the two large chunks of meat at the backfin of a crab. Each crab yields only two of these lumps, so this is the most expensive grade, and the most desirable when appearance is important. Regular crabmeat is less expensive. It is excellent for casseroles, deviled crabs, salads and such. Claw meat is very good, but tends to be darker, and should be used in dishes where color and tex-cooked dishes. It is the least expensive. Before using any grade of crabmeat, the cook should pick it over to eliminate any bits of cartilage or gristle that may have eluded the professional picker. Lump backfin should be handled gently to avoid breaking up the large, white lumps. These grades of crabmeat come in containers with pry-off tops and should be kept in the refrigerator no longer than two, or at the most, three days. Crabmeat is highly perishable and utmost care should be given to proper refrigeration. Pastuerized crabmeat is nearly identical to the freshly-picked. It can be opened and used immediately, but a nice trick is to open the can about 15 to 20 minutes before using, add the juice of half a lemon, gently fluffing the crabmeat; letting it stand in the refrigerator. This lemon juice refreshes it, and few, it any can tell the difference between pasteurized crabmeat and just picked.
A typical crab feast is a very casual affair. Live hard crabs are steamed or boiled in a wide and disputations variety of spices. When done the crabs are dumped in a heap in the middle of a table covered with many layers of newspaper. Everyone pitches in, with old hands showing tyros how to pick the meat from a steamed crab. Some serve corn-on-the-cob with the steamed crabs, and always, there must be plenty of cold beer and other cold beverages to cool the fiery effect of the spices. It is a messy, satisfying feast, best enjoyed in a bathing suit. Steamed crabs are a superb summer treat.
Every cook with a favorite crab pot has a favorite way of cooking crabs. Here is a loose, how-to-do-it primer:
One way is to drop live crabs in rapidly boiling water sufficient to cover the crabs. For each quart of water, add about 1 tablespoon salt, the juice of 1 lemon, 1 teaspoon cayenne and boil rapidly for 5 minutes. The crabs are done when they turn a bright red.Let crabs cool in the cooking water.
Here's another way. Put 12 live crabs in a pot. Mix together 2 or 3 cups cider vinegar or beer and 1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning or salt, pepper, celery salt and mustard. Pour over the crabs, quickly clamp on the lid and turn on heat. In about 20 minutes the crabs will be done. Let cool in pot.
Almost everyone has a favorite mixture of herbs for steaming or boiling crabs. There are commercial crab-boils on the market for those who don't. Old Bay Seasoning is a regioal favorite.
To steam a large batch of live crabs that are really spicy, and delicious hot or cold, try this method. Put a mixture of beer, vinegar and a little water in the bottom of a crab steamer (standard size pot): a cup of vinegar, a couple cans of beer, a cup of water, more or less, is about right to steam a pot nearly full of crabs.
When liquids are in the pot, put the steamer section in place and put in a layer of live crabs.
This sounds easier than it is. Use long tongs.
Sprinkle the crabs liberally with Old Bay, a little salt and red pepper seed or coarsely-chopped red pepper. (The pepper is optional.) Continue layers until pot is nearly full.Put lid on, clamp it tightly and turn on the heat.
If the lid is not clamped on in some way, the crabs will come out of the pot and create quite a stir in the kitchen.
It takes about one-half hour to steam a pot of crabs in a standard-size pot.
Put the hot steamed crabs in wooden bowls, to serve, or in a heap in the middle of a traditional newspaper-covered table. Put on small hammers, nut-crackers or lobster cracker for the claws, a large trash bin and set to.
The best way to learn to eat steamed crabs is to have someone show you. However, here is the rough idea of how to proceed: pull off legs and claws. Remove the apron that folds under the body from the back. Pull the top shell off the body. Remove the digestive tract and the feathery "deadman." The body can be broken along the center crease and the hard membrane along each edge cut off. Pick the meat out of each cavity. Crack the claws and remove the meat.
Meat from any leftover crabs can be picked out in this way and stored in the refrigerator or freezer. By the way, never make the mistake of washing crab meat after picking it out -- it will lose its flavor. Left over crabs may also be cleaned, with the top shell removed but the bodies left whole or broken in half, and stored in the freezer to be picked out later, or used whole in soups or chowders.
Crabmeat is the versatile friend of any good cook. Here is a roundup of crab receipes to add to your collection. CRAB PIE (serves 6)
Saute in butter 1 pound crabmeat with 3 teaspoons each minced chives, celery, pimentos and 1 minced bell pepper. Soak 2 cups toast crumbs in white wine. Mix with other ingredients and 1 cup cooked rice. Place in a caserole and bake 20 minutes at 350 degrees, or until well heated. CRABMEAT LOUIS DRESSING 2 cups homemade mayonnaise 1/2 cup finely chopped bell pepper 1/2 cup chopped green onion 1/2 cup chili sauce Handful parsley sprigs, minced Dash cayenne pepper Salt and lemon juice to taste 1/2 cup heavy cream
Combine all ingredients. Arrange crabmeat (allow 1 pound for 4 persons) on a bed of lettuce on individual salad plates. Coat with louis dressing and garnish with crab legs, tomato slices and sliced hard-cooked eggs. LUMP CRABMEAT COCKTAILS
Serve lump crabmeat, well chilled with:
Catsup and chili sauce seasoned to taste wth lemon juice and horseradish.
Mayonnaise and freshly chopped dill.
Lemon wedges and a dash of paprika. CRAB NEWBURG (serves 2)
Saute 1 cup crabmeat in butter. Add juice of 1 lime, 1/2 teaspoon each of powdered cloves, paprika, white pepper and salt. Beat, then stir in one egg yolk and 1/2 cup of cream. Add to other ingredients and simmer about 10 minutes. Before serving, add 1 tablespoon brandy. Heat and serve on toast or french bread. LINDA WATKINS CRAB CAKES (serves 4) 1 pound crabmeat 1 teaspoon (or more) Old Bay seasoning 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon mayonnaise 1 tablespoon Worcestershire 1 tablespoon chopped parsley 1 egg, beaten 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard 2 slices bread, crusts removed, soaked in milk
Mix ingredients and shape into cakes. Place on plate and put in refrigerator 20 to 30 minutes to "set up". Fry quickly in a mixture of oil and butter until brown on both sides. CRABMEAT AND COUNTRY HAM (serves 4) 4 thin slices country ham 3 or 4 tablespoons butter 1 pound lump crabmeat Juice of 1/2 lemon
Lightly fry ham slices in a heavy skillet. Keep slices warm.
Melt butter in another skillet, add crabmeat and stir gently over moderate heat, taking care to keep lumps intact. When crabmeat is heated through, squeeze lemon juice over it and put four equal servings on the four slices of country ham. Garnish with parsley and serve at once. CRAB SALAD (serves 4) 1 pound regular crabmeat 1 cup chopped celery 1/2 cup finely chopped green peppers 4 hard cooked eggs, chopped 1/4 cup finely chopped onion Juice of 1 lemon 3 tablespoons prepared India Relish Mayonnaise
Toss all ingredients lightly together. Add just enough mayonnaise to bind mixture. Let salad stand in refrigerator at least 2 hours before serving. Taste and add salt if necessary. Serve on lettuce leaves, stuffed in tomatoes or avocado halves. Garnish with parsley and lemon wedges. (Also very good served as an appetizer, heaped on melba toast or cucumber rounds. LAZIEST CRAB SOUP 1 cup chopped celery 1/2 cup chopped onion 2 tablespoons butter 1 pound crabmeat 1 can tomato soup 1 can green pea soup 3 cups milk 2 bay leaves 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce 1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce Salt and pepper to taste
Saute celery and onions in butter until golden brown. Add soups and milk. Lastly add crabmeat and seasonings. Let simmer about 1/2 hour. CRABMEAT SYCAMORE (serves 6 to 8) 3 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon chopped onions or shallots 1 teaspoon parsley 2 tablespoons flour 1 1/4 cups milk 2 tablespoons sherry Hot pepper sauce and Worcestershire to taste Salt and pepper to taste 2 pounds lump crabmeat 3/4 pound diced Swiss cheese 2 cans artichokes, drained 1 1/2 cups cream sauce 1/2 cup bread crumbs 8 thin slices lemon Parsley sprigs
Make sauce by melting butter, adding onions and parsley, blending in flour and slowly stirring in the milk. Add sherry and other seasonings. Place in large, greased casserole dish or individual shells, alternating layers of crabmeat, cheese and artichokes. Spoon cream sauce evenly on top. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. Garnish with thin lemon slices and parsley sprigs. SCOTCH CRAB SOUP (serves 4) 1/4 cup raw rice 1 tablespoon butter 2 cups milk 1 cup cleaned crabmeat 1 anchovy fillet, minced 1 1/2 cups hot chicken broth 1/2 cup light cream Salt and pepper
Bring rice, butter and milk to a boil; cover and simmer 20 minutes or until rice is quite soft. Add crabmeat and anchovy to soup. Then whirl mixture in a blender until smooth. Return to stove and add broth, and blend well. Heat to boiling and simmer for a few minutes. Stir in cream, season to taste and serve. GULF DEVILED CRABS (serves 6) 3 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons chopped onion 2 tablespoons flour 1 teaspoon dry mustard 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon dried sage 1 cup milk 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 tablespoon barbecue sauce 1 pound crabmeat 1 tablespoon chopped parsley 1/2 cup soft bread crumbs 2 tablespoons melted butter
Melt the butter and saute the onion in it. Blend the flour and seasonings.
Gradually add the milk, stirring constantly to make a cream sauce. Add lemon juice and barbecue sauce. Add crabmeat and parsley. Put into 6 individual ramekins (or crab shells) and top with buttered bread crumbs. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes.