Teach me about crabs
I'm from Texas. I know and love shrimp and crawfish. But I have moved to DC, and in this part of the world crab seems to be the thing. Crabcakes are all well and good, but what else is there? How do I pick out a good crab at a fish market? And having done so, what do I do with the creature?
So I'm assumng we're talking about Blue Claw crabs here right? In order for waterman to catch them they are supposed to be 5 inches from point to point, and if the place you are shopping is selling anything smaller, they are probably not too reputable. Shop elsewhere. If you are going to cook them, they have to be still alive, because once a crab dies, there are toxins that are released into their systems and will make you sick. If they have already been cooked, look for good color, and find out whether they were steamed or boiled and in what. Some places steam them in beer, other boil in water etc. That depends on your taste as does the addition of spices. Most places will put old bay in the water or on the crabs themselves, some people prefer without. For the most part, crabs are meant to be eaten like Lobster, soft shell crabs make nice sandwiches or you can perch them on a salad. Otherwise the ubiquitous crab cake is always an option as you mentioned, but the amount of filler, what you use for filler and whether you use Jumbo Lump or backfin to make them etc.
Imagine you are talking to someone who has never seen a crab except in lump or pre-cooked previously-frozen claws-only states. What kinds of crabs are there? What is a point? What color is "good"? Can you really just cook a soft-shell crab and plop it between two slices of bread and eat it, or are there guts that have to be removed?
There are obviously many varieties but Alaskan King crabs are the huge ones they sell at Red Lobster (being from the Eastern Shore of Maryland I say this with all the appropriate amount of disdain required). AK crabs have very little actual meat or flavor IMO. MD blue claws are the most common around D.C. Stone crabs are more common towards New England, the water is less brackish (required at least to some degree for Blues) and colder. Most people only really eat the claws of stone crabs. Points are the two points on each end of the shell. For live crabs, a grayish green color is ideal, for cooked, still in the shell, you want bright red with white edges.
Here's pics of cleaning a soft shell
Makes a good sandwich, but good by itself. I always eat the legs first.
And here's a shocking story about a soft shell from a few years ago
Depending on how adventurous you want to get ---
Gaejang gajang 게장 (Spicy seasoned raw crab)
1 1/2 pounds Blue Crab
1 cup soy sauce
6 cloves garlic
1/2 inch knob ginger
3 green or spring onions
4 tablespoons medium ground red chili powder
1 tablespoon coarse ground red chili pepper (flakes)
4 tablespoons sugar
5 hot green chili peppers
Anchovy Stock for Marinade
1 1/2 cup water
4 medium dried anchovies
1 1/2 to 2 inch piece of dried kombu (Kelp)
You can get frozen crabs already prepped or have the Korean Market prepare live crabs for you, or you can do it yourself with live crabs.
Remove and discard the upper shell.
Using a heavy knife or cleaver, chop the crabs in half down the middle.
Remove the grey flaps (gills).
Use a small brush and gently brush out the orange and/or yellow stuff, leaving just the meat.
Cut each half into two pieces.
Place water in a pot and bring to a full boil over high heat.
Reduce heat to medium low, add anchovies and Kombu.
Simmer for twenty minutes.
Remove from heat and strain.
Mince 3 of the garlic cloves, and thin slice the other three from top to bottom. Peel and mince the ginger.
Beginning just above the white part of the green onion, insert the knife tip and cut the white in half lengthwise.
Cut the onion into 1 1/2 inch long pieces.
Remove stems from peppers and slice into thirds lengthwise.
Add all marinade ingredients to the warm anchovy stock and mix well, then let cool.
After marinade has cooled to room temperature pour over prepared crabs.
Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours.
Serve at room temperature as part of a ban chan array with a Korean meal.
Note: Traditional Korean preparation calls for draining the marinade from the crabs after two to three days, boiling again, and pouring back over the crabs when cooled. Repeating this step every two or three days for a week or more.
Maybe eat crab in a few restaurants - whole, softshell, soup, fritters, cakes. See what you like best and go from there.
As for picking out a good creature, choose lively ones.
Many people don't like eating whole crabs, saying "its too much work". I disagree, finding that the picking is half the fun.
I like Old Bay seasoning. They have a recipe on steaming crabs on the back of the can, but it is quite vague. You might want to check this out
I moved from the East Coast to Texas, and one of the things I do really miss are Chesapeake Blue Claw crabs. You are lucky to have them.
First, don't skimp and get little ones. The ones sold as medium are the smallest allowed by law to be harvested, and they don't really have a lot of back fin meat or claw meat compared to the bigger ones. Spring for fewer, bigger crabs and I think you will be pleased.
Most people prefer males over females because the sight of orange roe seems to upset the masses, so if you are among those, learn to identify a male by the shape of its apron. There are zillions of pictures on the internet -- but you are generally looking for almost a T shape underneath. I don't have a problem with females, and in fact, there is a point of view out there that prefers the meat of females, but I can't taste the difference over the Old Bay.
Lastly, make sure they are alive and really moving. Crabs should be putting up a fight before they go into the pot. They get groggy in cold water, and can also survive a bushel or paper bag for quite a while. When you open the bag or bushel, fresh air will appear to wake them up, and they will start moving more. Reach for you long tongs to handle them. They should also seem to have good weight for their size, which is an indication of a healthy crab.
Good luck and enjoy.
I didn't answer your question about what to do with them.
1) Traditional way is to steam in steamer pot, season liberally with Old Bay. Crabs go in alive and kicking. This is the messy, down-home dinner best consumed with cold beer and not anywhere near a white carpet. You'll need a few mallets and a roll of paper towel. Don't rub you eyes without washing your hands first.
2) "Jersey" style -- "poach" by tossing live crabs in a deep pot of hot water, (not a good thing to try if you are a bleeding heart) and bring to a boil. Clean after cooking by removing guts and leaving just a shell with cooked crab meat still in it. Toss with olive oil, lots of garlic, small amount of parsley, salt and pepper to taste in a deep saute pan over low heat for a few minutes until the garlic and oil seem to have coated everything.
3) Italian style - poach, clean and add to a thin, garlicky marinara. Yummy over pasta, and messy as anything. Again, as in number two above, you are putting a "cleaned" whole crab into a sauce. Crabs don't seem to toughen in hot tomato sauce and impart a sweet flavor. Cook in the sauce for at least twenty to thirty minutes. If you like clams, you can add them during the last five minutes. If you must use a jarred sauce, thin it out a bit with water or clam juice. Thick is not what you want here.
4) If you decide that you are one of those who just can't stand messy eating, pull the back fin meat and serve on a scallop shell as Crab Imperiale. I don't have a great recipe for this and usually only eat it in restaurants. Maybe someone else can help here?
5) I have never bothered to use live crabs to make crab cakes and instead, I buy crab meat in a plastic container. Try not to buy the stuff from Thailand if you want the genuine article. Mix a single container (usually 16 oz.) with 1/2 cup mayo, Old Bay to taste, salt, pepper and roll in corn meal. Broil until heated through. Food of the Gods.