The boy learned how to catch soft-shell crabs by the age of 9. His grandfather, Bill Corkran, would consult the tide charts and the phases of the moon, and when the time was right the two of them would walk the shallow borders of the Chesapeake Bay near Trappe, Md., pulling along a lightweight Sunfish, the top of the boat lined with bushel baskets. When Colin Edgell and his grandfather saw the fragile soft-shell crab--its hard exterior cast off for only a few days until it could grow a new one--they would scoop it from the bay with a net, put it in the bushel basket and move on.
Back at the house, his grandmother, Lucile, would dredge the crabs in flour, fry them in a pan with butter and serve them between two pieces of Wonder Bread.
Twenty-one years later Edgell, 30, executive chef of Clyde's of Georgetown, is preparing skilled-roasted soft-shell crabs with tomato vinaigrette, summer slaw and matchstick potatoes in the kitchen of the M Street restaurant. The soft-shells in front of him are not ones he scooped up as he walked the edges of the bay with his grandfather. ("I'd always wear tennis shoes," Edgell remembers, "in case they turned out to be hard-shells.") These days he is dipping them in buttermilk and a seasoned cornmeal mixture--a slightly more sophisticated way of handling crabs than serving them between those two slices of Wonder Bread. But clearly he hasn't lost his taste for the bounty of the Chesapeake.
According to his grandfather Corkran, family roots in the area go "as far back as anybody can remember" on both sides. Colin's parents, Mike and Beverly, grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore in Easton and Trappe, respectively, and knew each other as children. So maybe Colin has some bay water in his veins?
"I do recall this," says Corkran. "We'd go hunting out on an old barge I had and there'd be no ducks. So Colin would get out, scour around, find some oysters, take the old oyster knife I had in the barge and open them. And I thought, 'What little kid would eat a raw oyster?' "
Before he was born, his parents had moved to what his mother calls "the Western Shore." And though Colin grew up in Gaithersburg and attended the Bullis School in Potomac, he spent summers and weekends savoring rockfish, perch, geese, ducks and hard-shells, all of the riches of the Maryland shore.
By high school he was hooked on cooking and when he reached Radford College in 1987 he shopped all morning and invented recipes all day long for his college friends.
His parents at first were perplexed. "He would call and ask me to send a particular recipe, or 'The Silver Palate Cookbook,' " says Beverly Edgell. "And I would think, 'What is going on down there?'"
Colin was using cookbooks as backup, because much of his work at the stove was experimentation. "I made a lot of mistakes," he recalls. "But in time, it got closer to 50-50." By 1990, he knew cooking was his future and headed to Baltimore's International Culinary College.
An only child, Colin had traveled with his parents, experimenting with restaurant food even at a young age. So when it was time to find his first job, his preferences were simple: "I wanted to work at some of the favorite places where I'd eaten."
He headed to Massachusetts. For four years at 21 Federal on Nantucket island he cooked lunches, prepped for the dinner crew, worked on the salad station, then moved on to warm appetizers, sauteing, grilling and eventually to sous chef. Then, back in Washington two years at the Four Seasons (with its round-the-clock, room-service-at-all-hours-kitchen) taught him that uttering the word "no" to a customer was a fireable offense. Next came a stint as sous chef at Restaurant Nora; then there was that character-building summer he and his wife, Jennifer, spent as innkeepers on Martha's Vineyard; and eventually an opportunity as executive chef at O'Donnell's on the north fork of New York's Long Island.
When that restaurant closed, Edgell found himself back in the Washington area in autumn 1998. He saw a classified ad for a job as chef of the Old Ebbitt Express, a quick-meal service in the atrium of the Old Ebbitt Grill on 15th Street NW, another restaurant in the Clyde's group. The interview went well--too well. Before he knew it, he was in contention for the job as executive chef of Clyde's of Georgetown. But first, there was The Tryout--the kitchen equivalent of running the gantlet.
John Guattery, corporate chef for the Clyde's Restaurant Group, and Ris Lacoste, executive chef of 1789 Restaurant, took Edgell to the combined kitchens of 1789 and the Tombs and the 1789 pastry shop on 36th Street. They showed him the walk-in refrigerators and asked him to come up with a five-course meal. It was 11 in the morning. Oh yes, they added, they'd be back with the top executives of the Clyde's Restaurant Group at 2 p.m.--and they'd be hungry.
"The first thing I did was to grab a notebook," recalls Edgell, "and went from walk-in to walk-in writing down what was in them." He collected his thoughts, composed a menu from his notes, then grabbed a giant tub and retraced his steps, pulling ingredients from the various refrigerators.
The appetizer, that was fine; the salad, no problem. And things were looking good for the rack of lamb main course. Except that among the shared space of those three kitchens he had had trouble locating an oven and was way behind schedule. Worse: the tasting crew decided to come back a little early.
"I'd calmly serve the appetizer, leave the room, zoom back to the oven. Pretend to be calm, walk back in, pick up their dirty plates, and race back to the kitchen."
Eventually the lamb was done, so was the tryout, and the job was his.
Today, he oversees a kitchen that serves 700 dinners a night. Clyde's staples such as burgers and chili are always on the menu. But much of the food's personality is also Edgell's: monkfish with fennel and lemons; sea scallops with chickpea puree and red pepper coulis; and of course, when they are in season, soft-shells, soft-shells and more soft-shells.
Edgell knows that some of the fruits of the waters of his childhood have been imperiled since he crabbed, hunted and fished them as a boy. Water pollution, chicken farming, development and overfishing have affected not only the waters but the way of life for oystermen and crab pickers since the days when he and his grandfather set crab traps with chicken necks for hard-shells. This year's drought has parched crops, too.
But whether he can conjure them up in memory alone or in his kitchen, his favorite Eastern Shore foods are easy for him to name: those soft-shell sandwiches, coleslaw, corn on the cob, tomatoes with salt only and hard crabs. And for dessert, the frozen custard he used to make with his great-grandmother's hand-cranked ice cream maker in the back yard, and peaches from the nearby orchard sliced and piled on top.
Skillet-Roasted Soft-Shell Crabs With Tomato Vinaigrette, Summer Slaw and Matchstick Potatoes
One of Colin Edgell's signature dishes at Clyde's Restaurant, this upscale version of an Eastern Shore delight combines soft-shell crabs, coleslaw and fries.
For the slaw (8 to 10 servings):
1/2 head cabbage (red is more colorful), shredded
2 zucchini, julienned
2 yellow summer squash, julienned
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 bunch parsley, leaves chopped
2/3 cup red wine vinegar
About 2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the vinaigrette:
3 large tomatoes, cut in half
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil, plus additional for the pan
For the matchstick potatoes:
1 large or 2 medium potatoes (preferably russet), cut into strips 3/8 inch wide and 1 to 2 inches long
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the crabs:
4 soft-shell crabs
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces ( 1/2 stick) butter
For the slaw: In a large bowl, toss together the cabbage, zucchini, summer squash, cherry tomatoes, parsley, vinegar, oil and salt and pepper to taste. Cover tightly and chill.
For the vinaigrette: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly coat a small baking dish with vegetable oil.
Place the tomato halves, cut-sides up, in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Roast in the preheated oven until slightly blackened around the edges, 10 to 12 minutes.
Place the roasted tomatoes in a blender or food processor along with the vinegar, sugar and additional salt and pepper to taste and puree. With the blender running, gradually add the oil. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.
For the potatoes: In a deep-sided pan or a wok, heat about 3 inches of oil to 375 degrees. Drop the freshly cut potatoes (don't wash, don't salt) immediately into hot oil. Stir once so the strips don't stick together. Cook until the edges start to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel to drain and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.
For the crabs: Trim the face, lungs and apron from the crabs and discard. Set the crabs aside.
Place the buttermilk in a shallow bowl; set aside. In another shallow bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, Old Bay seasoning and salt and pepper to taste.
Dip the crabs in the buttermilk, allowing the excess to drip off. Dredge the crabs in the flour-cornmeal mixture and set aside.
In a cast-iron skillet over medium heat melt the butter. Add the crabs and saute until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Flip the crabs, cover the skillet with a lid and cook for 3 to 4 minutes.
To assemble: Place a mound of the coleslaw in the middle of each of 2 plates; reserve the remaining coleslaw for another use. Drizzle the rim of the plate with the vinaigrette. Place 2 crabs on each mound of slaw. Top with loose stack of matchstick potatoes.
Per serving: 506 calories, 14 gm protein, 72 gm carbohydrates, 20 gm fat, 56 mg cholesterol, 7 gm saturated fat, 1,069 mg sodium, 5 gm dietary fiber
Lulu's Crab Supreme
This recipe is from chef Colin Edgell's grandmother, Lucile ("Lulu") Corkran.
For the white sauce:
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter, plus additional for the dish
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk, warmed
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon prepared horseradish
1 scant teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 pound lump back-fin crab meat
For the topping:
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly butter a shallow 2-quart baking dish.
For the white sauce: In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in the milk, bring the mixture to a boil and cook until the mixture thickens, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the mustard, Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, salt and lemon juice. Stir in the mayonnaise.
Place the crab meat in the prepared dish. Pour the white sauce over the top and stir gently to combine.
For the topping: In a small bowl, toss the bread crumbs with the melted butter. Sprinkle the topping over the casserole. Bake the casserole in the preheated oven for 10 minutes (no longer!).
Per serving: 255 calories, 17 gm protein, 11 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 9 gm saturated fat, 825 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
Lulu's White Potato Pie
(2 pies; about 16 servings)
This Eastern Shore specialty is served at Thanksgiving as well as during the summer or whenever the craving hits. You can substitute sweet potatoes for the white potatoes.
1 1/2 cups peeled, boiled and riced* potatoes (about 2 large potatoes)
1/2 cups heavy (whipping) cream (may substitute milk)
1/4 pound (1 stick) butter
3 eggs, separated
About 1 cup sugar
Nutmeg to taste
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Two 9-inch unbaked pie crusts
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
In a large bowl, beat the riced potatoes with the cream and butter until thoroughly combined. Set aside.
In a small bowl, stir together the egg yolks, sugar and nutmeg to taste. Stir the egg yolk mixture into the potato mixture. Add the lemon juice and mix well.
In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Gently fold the egg whites into the potato mixture.
Turn the mixture into the pie shells and bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center pulls away clean, about 40 minutes. If the crust begins to brown, you may need to cover the pie with tented aluminum foil.
*Note: The boiled potatoes may also be crushed by hand with a fork.
Per serving: 219 calories, 2 gm protein, 24 gm carbohydrates, 13 gm fat, 58 mg cholesterol, 6 gm saturated fat, 176 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber