Ahead of her demo, Jenny Chandler talks about why we should take another look at this most summery of shellfish
It’s mid-April and the sun has arrived. I’m sock-free and, at last, lunch in the garden or a trip to the seaside doesn’t seem so very far away. If there’s one ingredient that screams British summer to me it’s crab and, yippee, as if to herald all the fun to come, this month it’s back in season.
Crab is woven into so many holiday memories: those hours, countless hours, spent dangling precariously over harbour walls and jetties baiting lines with bacon rind, catching the greedy tiddlers only to tip them back into the sea after the grand tallying-up. Doorstop sandwiches stuffed with crab meat (both the white and brown), with lashings of mayonnaise and the odd slice of cucumber, savoured in coastal pub gardens. Crab, straight from the fisherman’s help yourself honesty stall, boiled in a vast cauldron of sea water on the campfire in the Scillies, then tackled with mallets, tent pegs and messy fingers.
It seems such a shame that many Brits think of crab as rather exotic restaurant food, or more surprisingly, as a treat to savour on trips abroad—we have fabulous crab on our doorstep, it’s simply a question of plucking up the courage to cook it yourself or buying some freshly prepared meat from the fishmonger.
The Continent and China
There are dozens of varieties of crab around the world, but the British catch is primarily the brown, or common crab, (Cancer pagurus) and the spider crab (Maia squinado). Since a good proportion of our crustaceans are exported, the spider crab can be particularly hard to come by, largely sold to the Continent and even China, where they are more highly prized than here in the UK.
When buying crab, you’re either looking for a live specimen to prepare at home, or a ready-cooked crab. Go for a crab that’s heavy for its size—lighter crabs may have recently grown a new shell and not have much meat at all. Some cooks prefer a male crab, with its bigger claws that offer a greater white-to-brown meat ratio (the brown meat is all in the body), than the females who, in turn, are said to have sweeter flesh.
Cooking from scratch is pretty simple. Once you’ve dispensed with the crab in a humane way, immediately before it goes into the pot, it’s really just a question of setting the timer. You’ll want to cool the crab for a couple of hours after cooking, then it’s up to you: once the crab is cracked open, gills and stomach thrown aside, you can go it alone in the kitchen or dive in with tools at the table in the most convivial of feasts.
Tarragon, ginger, lime
I don’t think you can better freshly cooked crab served with a simple green salad and homemade mayonnaise. I often make a batch of mayo and then divide it, leaving one bowl plain, stirring fresh tarragon into another and grating ginger and lime zest into the third.
White crab meat, with its delicate sweetness and moist, flaky texture, is perfect in salads or crab cakes. While the former tends to be more popular, if it’s depth of flavour you’re after then look to the creamier, richer brown meat—the main player in soups, soufflés and sauces. I love to use both, and just to really ensure that nothing goes to waste you can cook up the leftover shell, too, and make the most ambrosial stock for a creamy crab bisque.
Join Jenny for tips, tastings and recipes Friday 27th April in the Market Hall, 1-2:30pm