Saturday, April 17, 2010

Feeling crabby

Crabs. Sweet, succulent, tender. There is not enough food-porn terminology to describe just how groin-grabbingly good fresh crab is*.

From crab and corn dumplings at yum cha to deep fried soft shell crab in Far North Queensland to chilli mud crab in Singapore: crab is irresistible on any menu. Why then, despite buying octopus and squid, mussels and sardines and Moreton Bay bugs, have I never purchase whole crab? Jewel coloured and art-like, I have always overlooked them. Not overlooked: avoided.

Little return for too much hard work. A disparity between effort and reward.

Cooking crabs is as simple as any other seafood. Despite the bad reputation, seafood is relatively easy and relatively forgiving. It is better to undercook than overcook. I have found that seafood never suffers from being returned to the heat. The theory behind cooking crab is just like any other shellfish: plunge into boiling water, return to the boil, cook for a ‘bit’ (that’s the part that is a little tricky**), refresh in cool water***.

There the simplicity ends.

It took me, with kitchen-helper assistance, 45 minutes to extract the flesh from the claws and body. Whole blue swimmer crab yields about a third of its weight in meat (this is pretty standard for all whole crab). So my three little crabs gave us merely a handful of crab meat. Paltry would be an accurate assessment.

And messy. Very messy. It is not exaggeration that we flicked crab all over each other, the bench and the floor. We missed the ceiling. Probably. I had to have a shower before I returned to the kitchen. “Crabby” would be an apt description.

After the harrowing 45 minutes flesh-extraction process, we wound up with a small pile of wobbly undercooked meat.

Luckily, I remembered that Thomas Keller deliberately does this with lobster, finishing off the cooking process by poaching the undercooked meat in beurre monte just prior to serving. Situation saved. This does make the meat a little richer, but the butter enhances the flavour and keeps the flesh soft.

Delicate and rich, I needed something to cut through the butter and yet not over-power the crab. Salad: a dressing made with the juice and rind of home grown limes. Peppery rocquette. Shaved fennel and cucumber. Avocado and green onions. But something extra. Experimenting with a Belinda Tuckwell recipe, I finished the salad with green-tea salt.

In all honesty, given the time, effort and resultant scrubbing of self and kitchen, crab is indeed more work than it is pleasure.

On the other hand, the kitchen-helper gave it seven thumbs up. Even after the industrial clean up.

* The Simpsons, “Guess who’s coming to criticize dinner”, 1999 (Season 11, Episode 3)
** Which is fine, once you have a good idea of how long it takes to cook a crab (this thing is, it differs from crab to crab depending on variety and size). Boil a 300 g crab about five minutes is a good rule of thumb. I got this wrong.
*** All things keep cooking with residual heat even after you take them away from the heat source. With shell fish this is even more pronounced as the shell retains the heat. Plunging into ice water stops the cooking process.

Crab and green-tea salt salad

Serves 2

1 tbsp sea salt flakes
1 tbsp green tea leaves
Finely grated rind of two limes
4 blue swimmer crabs
50 gm chilled butter, cut into 1 cm cubes
2 tbsp olive oil
Juice of two limes
2 long green onions, finely sliced
1 bulb fennel, quartered and shaved
1 cucumber, thinly sliced into rounds
1 avocado, diced
150 gm rocquette (three large handfuls)

For the salt: finely grind salt, tea and rind in a mortar and pestle until a fine powder. Spread on foil and place in a moderate oven for 5-10 minutes to dry. Remove and set aside.

For the crab: bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Add 4 tbsp salt. Plunge crabs into the boiling water. Return to the boil. Cook crabs for 5 minutes, then plunge into iced water. To extract meat: press down on the ‘tail’ and peel the carapace from the crab (the hard shell of the body). This will strip away icky internal organs. Rinse under cold water. Extract the meat. Tricky, and messy. The body will have some meat, as will the large legs and claws. Crack the shell and gently pull the flesh from the shell. (Alternatively, use prawns or grilled fish or buy the meat already stripped).

If the crab is not fully cooked, or to enhance the flavour, make buerre monte. Heat 3 tbps water in a saucepan. With a whisk, incorporate the butter piece by piece until all melted and combined. Add the crab and heat through for three to four minutes, until opaque and cooked. Turn off the heat (the crab can rest in this mixture for around 15 minutes without losing heat or over cooking). Just before serving, strain the crab.

For the salad: Whisk the oil and lime juice together until emulsified. Add the spring onions, fennel, cucumber and avocado. Just before serving, toss through the rocquette.

To serve: Pile the salad onto a plate. Top with crab meat and sprinkle with green-tea salt.

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