Local Ingredients: Maryland Blue Crab

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It seems fitting that the first local ingredient featured on this blog is the “beautiful savory swimmer,” callinectes sapidus. Common name: the Maryland blue crab.

Some of my fondest memories are of summer backyards filled with brown-paper covered tables, mallets and claw crackers or heavy knives at the ready, bright red crabs covered in Old Bay piled in the center of the table. A grill warming up for burgers and hot dogs. Cold beer, sometimes a pool, and family and friends sitting down to hours of intensive labor for a few piles of sweet, delicious crabmeat. 

My uncle Ben (for real) used to pick crabs for hours without eating them, amassing an enviable pile of sweetly spicy crabmeat that he would eat with a fork at the end of the day as we all looked on. My dad once stole a forkful of that pile, and fisticuffs were definitely imminent. Only the presence of children prevented that, I believe.

I, myself, was a crabber in my youth. A length of string and a chicken neck, the older the better, tied to a dock and soaked for just a little bit, could make anyone a crabber. I spent many happy hours, sitting on a dock of the Bay (for real), patiently pulling up the string, hand over hand, looking for the moving shadow that meant a blue crab had hitched a ride.

Blue crabs range from Nova Scotia to Argentina in the western Atlantic Ocean, hibernating in the colder months in the muddy bed of the Atlantic. Jimmies, male crabs, are easily identified by their Washington Monument-shaped apron, the flap on their bellies, while sooks, the females, have a wider apron.

It’s a boy!

Identifying males and females is important for the protection of the species. While sooks are sold for eating, jimmies tend to be larger, meatier, and more delicious.

 
I may have lied just then. I eat the boys only because the girls make more crabs. Boys are necessary in the process, which includes a jimmy gently cradling a molting female until she completes her molt, impregnating her, then cradling her again as her shell hardens before he swims off in search of another girlfriend, but let’s face it: one boy can make a lot of baby crabs. 
A mama, also called a “sponge crab.” That orange “sponge” is unhatched babies.

In 2014, the commercial blue crab harvest was 35 million pounds, an amount considered “sustainable” by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee. Even though this is considered a safe amount of crab to harvest (with smaller crab fishermen and weekend warriors only bringing in a negligible amount), the blue crab is highly susceptible to pollutants and chemicals in their habitat. 


They are bottom-dwellers, bottom-feeders, corpse pickers: they like dead, rotting stuff for dinner, and they don’t really care what killed it. They remind me of a former bad boss, plus a few people I used to know. 
 
In short, they are nothing like what I normally eat, but SO DELICIOUS. 
 
It is important to note that while 50% of the country’s blue crabs come from the Chesapeake Bay, not all blue crab on offer is from Maryland. Cheaper crab can be had from Asian waters, and many restaurants will substitute that for more expensive crab from Maryland. And others who don’t know any better may prefer the lazy man’s crabs (Dungeness and Alaskan King) over the hard-won rewards of a Maryland blue crab’s labrynthian interior. 
 
But why mess with perfection?
 
The hibernation period of the blue crab (roughly from November to March) allows it to build up its fat stores, which results in a delicate, buttery flavor, unmatched by its larger crustacean cousins. Save those for things like quiche and crabcakes. 
 
The most authentic way to enjoy a Maryland blue crab is straight from the pot with a Natty Boh.
 
Purchasing notes: fresh crabs are best purchased right off the dock. Look for jimmies that are 6″ or larger from point to point. Don’t waste your time with smaller crab or sooks.
 
Cooking them is easy, and although some people fuss with fancy gadgets and the like, all you really need is a big pot with a lid, a Natty Boh, vinegar, Old Bay, and some aluminum foil. Thusly:
 
1. Use the aluminum foil to create a rope-like structure that you will curl and place at the bottom of the pot. You can buy a pot with a rack for this purpose, but unless you will also use the pot for canning, aluminum foil works just fine. You are steaming the crabs, not boiling them, and the aluminum foil curl lets them rest just above the liquid.
 
2. Crack open a Natty Boh (or a Pabst Blue Ribbon. No hipster, quadruple-hopped bullshit here) and pour it and an equivalent amount of water (or just below the aluminum coil). Add a splash of vinegar (white or cider), and bring to a boil. 
 
3. Add crabs. Add a layer of crab, sprinkle liberally with Old Bay, layer of crab, Old Bay, layer of crab, etc. 
 
Side note: You could use something other than Old Bay, but A) then you would be a moron, and B) that would be a ridiculous thing to do. So stick with Old Bay.
 
4. Place lid on the pot, then crack a beer for yourself and wait. Crabs are done when they are bright red, about ten or 15 minutes, or the time it takes for you to drink your beer. Which since Natty Boh is like barley flavored water, is about ten or 15 minutes.
 
Once they are done, what the hell do you do with them?
 
Maryland State Senator John Astle, a West Virginia native, knows how it’s done. 
Side note: the “inside stuff” is also known as “mustard.” Some locals eat the mustard, but I am not even remotely interested in this. Some people believe it is fat, but it is actually the crab’s hepatopancreas which filters impurities from the crab’s blood. So you would then be eating the impurities. #HardPass
 
Some people dip the crab in apple cider vinegar.

Some ignorant people ask for butter. #Unnecessary #WeAreOutOfButter

This year I cracked crabs on the front porch of Redwing Farm in Sinks Grove, WV. My uncle Steve and I drove down to the water that morning to pick up a half bushel, covered them with ice in a cooler (drain open; crabs will drown in fresh water), and eight hours later pulled them out of the pot to eat as the sun set over the ridge. 
 
It’s not too late to enjoy these beautiful swimmers, even if you don’t want to cook them yourself. As summer winds down and we look forward to the autumnal equinox, small boats are still out on the Bay, fishing for crab. The end of summer is the best time for crab; prices are down, sizes are up, and traffic on crab decks is light. 
 
Maryland blue crab is a true local ingredient and my penultimate summer food; what’s yours? 
 

Friday Links: Quick Food

Like this pancake’s grin, I too, feel a little raggedy when dinnertime rolls around.

School is back in full swing, and even for those who homeschool, time is always an issue when it comes to dinner. While I love to cook, I hate making dinner. My energy naturally flags around four o’clock, right when The Teenager is getting home, dogs need to be walked, and dinner needs to begin.

This week’s quick links are all about how to make quick food that is fresh, delicious, and virtually thought-free. Always a plus at the end of the day!

Oh My Veggies Slow Cooker Lasagna: Easy, easy, easy, and perfect for this time of year as summer’s produce spills out of gardens and farmer’s markets. Personally, I am not an eggplant fan, so I would substitute something else, but I am guessing there is not much you can do to mess this up.

Slow Cooker Chicken Burrito Bowls: These are absurdly and inappropriately delicious. So good, in fact, that I am going to make some tonight instead of roasting some boring old thighs. Excellent the next day wrapped in a flour or rice tortilla.

Quinoa Corn Chowder: Sensing a trend? If you have not already been using a crockpot for easy weeknight meals, then you should absolutely break it out for this delicious, vegetarian (with veggie stock) chowder that is high in protein and zippy with sweet corn and jalapenos. 

And speaking of crockpots, stay away from that cream-of-crap soup that proliferates in so many recipes for the crockpot. Make your own dry mix, then use that as directed when a recipe calls for cream-of-______ soup.

Cook Once, Eat 50 Times: Take one day and cook 50 meals, then shine your crown and brush off your cape because you are a queen/king AND a superhero. These are meat-heavy, so sprinkle in some vegetarian action, too. 

When all else fails, I am a big fan of breakfast for dinner, like the gluten-free blueberry pancakes above. The Teenager likes hers with a slice of bacon grilled right in there.

What quick foods do you reach for on busy weeknights?

Unicorn Alert: Delicious Gluten Free Pizza

The Unicorn

It’s possible. I swear.

I know, because I have eaten eleventy million crappy gluten free pizza crusts in service of this goal: finding a good gluten free crust. An easy crust that doesn’t involve twelve different kinds of flour and still ends up tasting like a cracker.

A crust that has some chewiness to it, like real pizza, and tastes like yeast, not cheddar cheese or cardboard.

A crust that is more than just a conveyance for toppings. In fact, my favorites for this pizza are fresh tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, a chiffonade of basil, sprinkle of salt, cracked black pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. It’s a perfect late-summer pizza.

I developed this recipe for everyone who misses pizza THE MOST out of everything they had to give up when gluten went away. I have forced it upon a reluctant teenager and her friends and asked (nicely) two other people to make this recipe also so I know it works.

It’s not just “good for gluten free.”

It’s delicious, period.

Gluten Free Pizza

Ingredients:
1 ¼ cup warm water (between 80 and 100⁰), divided
2 T. yeast
3 T. sugar
4 T. powdered milk
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 T. olive oil
Method:
Preheat the oven to 450⁰. Combine half of the water and the yeast in a bowl. Let stand until it wakes up and start to get foamy. Add 1 tablespoon of sugar to help it along.
In a large mixing bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients and whisk to combine. Make a well in the center and add the foamy yeast, the rest of the water, and the olive oil. Stir with a spatula to combine. Don’t overwork the dough.
 
Mix just until it comes together. No kneading!
 When the dough has come together, divide in half and place each half on a greased cookie sheet (unless you are making one big pizza. Make sure your pan is big enough to get the crust thin). For easy, non-sticky, and efficacious spreading, place plastic wrap over the dough and use your fingers to shape the dough until it is very thin (about ¼”). Keep a little lip to contain your toppings. Repeat with the other half of the dough.
Let crust sit for 10 minutes. I call this “allowing the dough to collect its thoughts.”
Place crusts in the preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and cracks begin to form on the bottom. Remove from the oven.
 
Note slightly darker spots. This is what happens when the crust is not even. #ItHappens
Add your toppings. Finish the pizza with a sprinkle of salt and freshly-ground black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. 
 
I like fresh basil. Sue me.
Turn on the broiler and put your pizza about five inches away. Watch carefully. You are only looking for brown, bubbly cheese. Your crust is already cooked. This takes between three and five minutes. 
 
Serve it howeverthehell you like to serve your pizza. I like it on a plate balanced on my chest, followed by soft serve ice cream as the second course. 
 
Mangia.
 
Recipe notes:

 

  • Be strange and add cheese onto the crust first. It keeps the crust from getting soggy under the sauce. I add a layer of cheese, then sauce, then cheese. 
  • If your edges are burning, cover them with foil.
  • Bake multiple crusts and wrap well to freeze. To bake, preheat the oven to 375⁰.  You don’t need to defrost the pizza crust. Top pizzas however you choose, then bake on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes until cheese is brown and bubbly.
  • You can sub in regular AP flour or purchase other gluten-free AP flour blends. Do not use AP flour blends that use garbanzo flour. The taste of those is quite bean-y, and the texture of the pizza will change.
  • To make this recipe vegan, simply eliminate the powdered milk and add a touch less water. The crust will be slightly less chewy but it will still be delicious.