For almost as long as John Shields has been picking the snowy white rewards from inside the orange-red shells of steamed Maryland blue crabs, he’s heard the same question again and again: Why go to all that bother?
The amiable 56-year-old chef-owner of Gertrude’s in Baltimore, cookbook author and longtime host of “Chesapeake Bay Cooking” on public television admits that it’s not to reap heaps of meat. “It’s about having a good time around the table,” he says. “About sharing a group meal and stories with friends. Ice. Cold. Beer.
“And if you don’t want to pick crabs, well, that’s why God invented the crab cake.”
During the shooting of the how-to video you see above, Shields included useful tips and his own secrets for steaming and seasoning them at home. Those ended up on the cutting-room floor, so here’s a recap:
l When you’re selecting Maryland blue crabs, you’ll want the heaviest ones. July’s the time when crab feasts get rolling around town, but the crabs you’ll buy in September and October have had a few months to fatten up, so chances are good they’ll be bigger — and certainly cheaper. In general, male crabs (called jimmies) tend to be heavier than immature female crabs (sallies). At this time of year, you may find more jimmies at the market.
l Once you get the crabs home, use tongs to pick them up by the middle of their bodies; no need to risk getting pinched. A quick bath in ice water will calm the crabs down and provide traction for the seasoning to stick.
l Shields likes to start with Vanns’ Chesapeake Bay Seafood Seasoning. Then he adds generous pinches of freshly ground black pepper and kosher salt to the mix. This makes a world of difference. The spiciness is deeper and really complements the flavor of the crabmeat.
Speaking of flavor, the chef says consumers have gotten used to the “lesser flavor” of imported cooked crabmeat that must be bleached to withstand its travel. “I’ve heard people say they find Maryland crab tastes ‘too fishy,’ ” he says. “Imagine that.”
l The chef uses a mixture of stale beer and distilled white vinegar for the steaming liquid. He places a rack with short legs into his steaming pot, then builds layer upon layer of crab, sprinkling more of the seasoning blend over each layer of seasoned crabs. They should take about 20 minutes to cook through, he says.
l Resist the temptation to attack the steamed crabs placed before you on the table. No smashing, no flying bits of cartilage. Those wooden mallets are for getting at the meat in the claws. Provide each guest with a paring knife as well the main weapon. Place the knife at the midpoint of the claw; use the mallet to tap the narrow edge of the knife until it sinks about halfway through the claw. Then twist and pull the claw into two pieces. You should find meat in each half.
l The actual yield of crabmeat per critter is 1 to 2 ounces. It can take from 30 to 60 crabs to pick a pound of crabmeat.
l If you’ve got leftover crabs that you’re just too pooped to pick at, refrigerate them wrapped in newspaper for no more than a day or two. Use that meat for soups and stews.
Have you developed successful strategies for crab picking? Share them in the comments below.