As spring inches toward summer, those true-blue perennials--the bay area crabs--are once again making their appearance along the estuaries around the Chesapeake.

That means it's time to spread picnic tables with newspaper and to set out a bushel of steamed blue crabs for a lengthy session with the pick and claw cracker. Of course, some cooks prefer to leave the heavy picking to someone else, and that is where the canned goods--shelled and cooked--come in handy.

During the off-season cooks can turn to pasteurized, canned crab meat. When refrigerated at 33 to 35 degrees, an unopened container of pasteurized crab meat will keep perfectly well for six months or more. But when the blue crabs start running in the bay, it's time to think about using these crustaceans in dishes that have made the Chesapeake region famous.

Fresh-picked crab meat ranges from the choice lump backfin meat to claw meat to regular and special grades. Lump backfin is best for dishes requiring unbroken, plump pieces of meat, such as crab meat cocktails or saute'ed dishes, where appearance is important. Regular and special are fine for casseroles and the like, and claw meat works very well for soup. Crab claws, with the shell partially removed, are available by the pound, and are excellent for dipping in sauce as cocktail party tidbits.

If in doubt about the grade of crab meat needed for a recipe, consult your seafood marketer. Naturally, there is diversity of opinion about which grade to use in a particular dish. Some cooks, for example, swear by lump backfin for crab cakes. Others say that's fine if you wish to pay the price, but creditable and excellent crab cakes can be made with lesser grades, and in fact some prefer the lesser grade. Experimentation will give you your own answers.

Fresh crab meat must be refrigerated at all times, and should be used within two hours of picking for optimum quality and safety. This holds true for pasteurized crab meat, too, once the can is opened. Remember to handle the backfin grade gently to prevent breaking up the lumps, otherwise you might as well buy a lesser grade. Crab meat from the blue crab is always a delicacy, and deserves careful handling.

This true-blue perennial is delicious on its own, with lemon juice or a sauce, or lightly saute'ed in butter and served plain or on toast points. Not only that, crab meat is a good mixer--it blends with vegetables to make soups and gumbos; works admirably as a stuffing for fish, shrimp and poultry; and combines with rice and pasta and a great variety of ingredients for delicious casseroles.

Since a can of crab meat is all meat and no waste, it is a good buy. But before adding it to a dish, you should pick carefully through the meat for any bits of cartilage or shell that might have slipped by the picker at the crab house. Once that is done, the crab meat is ready to use as is, or in favorite recipes.

Here are some ways to use those blue crabs you've netted.

BAY COUNTRY CRAB SOUP (Makes about 5 quarts) 1 pound beef shin, bone-in 3 quarts water 1 large onion, chopped 2 large stalks celery, chopped 16-ounce can tomatoes 1 tablespoon salt 1/4 teaspoon black pepper 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper 10-ounce package frozen mixed vegetables 10-ounce package fresh or frozen mixed soup vegetables 1 pound regular crab meat, picked over 1/2 pound claw crab meat

Put beef shin, water, onion, celery, tomatoes, salt, pepper and cayenne in a large pan and simmer, covered, until meat is very tender, about 3 hours. Add remaining ingredients and simmer, covered, until vegetables are done. Remove meat from bone, chop it and return to soup.

MARYLAND CRAB CAKES (6 crab cakes) 1 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs 1 large egg (or 2 small) About 1/4 cup mayonnaise 1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce 1 teaspoon dry mustard 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1 pound crab meat, picked over Margarine, butter or oil for frying

In a bowl, mix bread crumbs, egg, mayonnaise and seasonings. Add crab meat and mix gently but thoroughly. If mixture is too dry, add a little more mayonnaise. Shape into 6 cakes.

In a frying pan, cook crab cakes in just enough fat to prevent sticking, until browned, about 5 minutes on each side.

CRAB IMPERIAL (4 servings) 3 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon minced onion 1 tablespoon flour 1/2 cup milk 1 1/2 teaspoons worcestershire sauce 2 slices white bread, cubed (crusts removed) 1/2 cup mayonnaise 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1/2 teaspoon salt Few dashes pepper 1 pound picked crab meat (preferably backfin) Paprika

In medium-size pan, melt 1 tablespoon butter, and saute' onion until soft. Mix in flour. Slowly add milk, stirring constantly, to keep mixture smooth and free from lumps. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until mixture comes to a boil and thickens. Remove from heat and stir in worcestershire and bread cubes. Cool.

Fold in mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt and pepper. In another pan, heat 2 tablespoons butter until lightly browned. Add crab meat and toss lightly. Combine with sauce mixture, being very careful not to break up the crab meat.

Put mixture into individual shells or ramekins (or greased 1-quart casserole). Sprinkle paprika over top. Bake at 450 degrees until hot and bubbly and lightly browned on top, 10 to 15 minutes.

SAUTEED CRAB FLAKES (6 to 8 servings) 2/3 cup butter 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/8 teaspoon pepper 1/4 cup chopped parsley 2 tablespoons brandy 2 pounds backfin crab meat, picked over Pinch nutmeg Parsley and lemon wedges for garnish

Melt butter in a 2 1/2- to 3-quart saucepan or chafing dish. Add salt, pepper, parsley, brandy and nutmeg. Stir in crab meat, trying not to break up lumps, and saute' slowly 5 to 8 minutes, or until crab meat is heated. Good served as is, on toast points, or on very thin slices of fried country ham. Garnish with parsley and lemon wedges.

CRAB CREOLE (4 servings) 1 large onion, chopped 1 clove garlic, crushed 1/2 cup green pepper, chopped 4 tablespoons bacon fat 2 cups crab meat, picked over 16-ounce can tomatoes 1/2 cup celery, chopped 1 teaspoon sugar 1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce Dash hot pepper sauce 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/8 teaspoon pepper

In a large skillet, saute' onions, garlic and green pepper in bacon fat until tender. Add remaining ingredients (including crab meat) and simmer for 20 minutes. Serve over rice.

SIMPLE CRAB CAKES (4 servings) 2 cups crab meat (lump preferred), picked over 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/8 teaspoon pepper Dash worcestershire sauce 1 egg, slightly beaten Flour Sweet butter or oil for cooking

Gently mix crab meat with salt, pepper, worcestershire sauce and egg. Shape into small cakes. Chill for several hours. When ready to cook, dredge crab cakes in flour. Either saute' in a frying pan in enough sweet butter to prevent sticking, about 3 to 4 minutes per side, or until browned. Or, fry in deep, hot fat 2 to 3 minutes.

CRAB SALAD (4 to 5 servings) 1 1/2 cups picked crab meat 1/3 cup mayonnaise 1 tablespoon chili sauce 1 teaspoon horseradish 1/4 cup celery, finely chopped 1/8 teaspoon onion juice 1 teaspoon green pepper, finely chopped Lettuce 2 large, ripe tomatoes, sliced 1 medium avocado, peeled and sliced in wedges

Combine crab meat with mayonnaise, chili sauce, horseradish, celery, onion juice and green pepper. Chill. Serve salad on a bed of lettuce, garnished with tomato and avocado slices.

ZIPPY CRAB IMPERIAL (6 servings) 2 tablespoons butter 1 cup green and red bell peppers, chopped 1 cup light cream 1 teaspoon vinegar 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1 pound crab meat, picked over 1 cup bread crumbs

Melt butter in pan and saute' peppers until soft. Add cream and seasonings and cook until thickened. Gently mix in the crab meat and bread crumbs. Transfer to a buttered casserole dish and bake at 325 degrees 10 to 15 minutes, or until heated through.

BAKED POTATOES WITH CRAB STUFFING (4 to 6 servings) 4 medium-large baking potatoes, baked 1/2 cup butter 1/4 cup heavy cream 1 tablespoon onion, finely grated 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated 1 cup flaked crab meat, picked over 1/4 pound mushrooms, sliced and sauteed 1/8 teaspoon pepper 1 teaspoon salt

As soon as potatoes are cooked, cut in half lengthwise and scoop out pulp, taking care not to tear skins. Mash potatoes thoroughly (or put through ricer); heat butter and cream over very low heat until butter melts, and beat into potatoes. Stir in grated onions, 2/3 of the cheese, flaked crab meat, mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Pile in potato shells and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake in 350-degree oven until cheese melts and potatoes are very hot, about 20 minutes. To brown tops, run under broiler a few seconds. These potatoes are an excellent main course when served with a green salad.

CRAB MEAT AND BROCCOLI CASSEROLE (4 servings) 1 pound broccoli, cooked 1/2 pound fresh crab meat, picked over and flaked 1 cup sour cream Salt and pepper 1/4 cup chili sauce 1 small onion, finely chopped 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 1 tablespoon grated lemon peel

Cook broccoli until tender, drain and break into small pieces. Combine with all other ingredients. Transfer to a small, shallow, buttered casserole and bake at 350 degrees 20 minutes or until cheese is melted and top is browned.

CRAB-STUFFED RED SNAPPER (4 servings) 1/3 cup minced onion 3 tablespoons butter 1 cup crab meat, picked over 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs 1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley 1/4 cup heavy cream 1/4 teaspoon thyme 4-pound red snapper, dressed for stuffing Salt and pepper 1/3 cup dry white wine mixed with 1/3 cup melted butter

Saute' onion in butter until golden. Remove from heat and mix in the crab meat, bread crumbs, parsley, heavy cream and thyme. Sprinkle cavity of fish lightly with salt and pepper. Stuff the fish and skewer edges securely. Place fish in a greased baking pan, pour wine-butter mixture over fish. Bake in 400-degree oven, uncovered for 30 minutes or just until the flesh is opaque, basting frequently with wine sauce.

DEVILED CRAB MEAT (16 servings) 1/2 cup butter 4 tablespoons onions, minced 1/2 cup flour 1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 4 cups whole milk 3 teaspoons worcestershire sauce 6 teaspoons lemon juice Dash of hot pepper sauce 3 cups of celery, thinly sliced or diced 2 tablespoons parsley, snipped 6 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and chopped 4 1/2 cups crab meat, picked over 2 cups buttered bread crumbs

Combine butter, minced onions, flour, mustard and salt in a saucepan and cook until frothy. Add milk and stir constantly until thick and smooth. Then add worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, hot pepper sauce, celery, parsley, hard-cooked eggs and crab meat. Spoon mixture into 16 ovenproof shells and top with bread crumbs. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.

PARTY CRAB MEAT (50 servings) 1 cup butter 1 1/2 cups flour 2 quarts milk 6 8-ounce cans crab meat, picked over 1 pound mushrooms, sliced and sauteed 1 cup dry sherry Hearty dash lemon juice Hearty dash worcestershire sauce Dash nutmeg Parsley

In a large pan melt butter, stir in flour and then add milk. Stir constantly until white sauce is thick. Add all remaining ingredients and heat until all ingredients are hot. (Be careful mixture does not scorch). Serve from chafing dish with toast rounds or favorite crackers.