We live on a canal, which in turn feeds into the mouth of a river, which then feeds into a lagoon, which makes its way to the Atlantic. Which is a roundabout way of saying I could sail around the world from my backyard and return, except I don’t think our canal is deep enough to take the draft of a world-cruising sailboat, even if I could afford one. Our canal does, however, host plenty of salt water blue crab, free for the eating.
I love making a more or less classic bisque, from fresh caught crab straight through to the plate. The many steps involved just kind of make it more real.
I have a crab pot/cage. Every now and then, I take a $1.00 can of sardines, open it a crack, put it in the trap, and toss it in the canal out the backyard. We’ve had a lot of rain lately (hello Spring in Florida!) and the canal water-level has risen a couple feet, little fish fry are hatched and hiding, manatee are splashing, the occasional bottle-nose dolphin visits the mouth of the canal, pelicans and kingfishers are getting fat. It’s good crab season. I threw the cage out Monday evening, and Tuesday at noon, I had four good sized male crabs.
A brief paragraph on conservation. Female blue crabs mate once in their entire lives, then store (ahem) the genetic material. They may spawn and hatch eggs for years from the same mating episode. Male crabs live longer and might mate and mate again with many females. But, they’re not as necessary for crab reproduction because the males tend to outnumber the females — there’s always a ready and willing male around. I don’t mind harvesting male blue crabs, but I always throw back females as they are the ones (given a chance to have sex for the one and only time in their lives) who regenerate the entire blue crab population. Florida doesn’t have the same blue crab sustainability issues that the Chesapeake Bay has, even though Florida’s crabbing harvest laws are pretty liberal. My personal blue crab sustainability effort involves keeping breeding females in the water where they can make more crabs to eat. More on telling the difference between the genders a little farther down in the post.
So, I had four male blue crabs in a bucket. There’s an old crabber tale that if you have one crab in a bucket, you have to keep an eye on him. He might escape, or worse, jump and grab a chunk of your thumb. If you have more than one crab in a bucket, though, you don’t have to worry. As soon as one tries to get out, the others will grab him and pull him back down again. You can even see the competition with the first picture in this post. I’ve never ever had a problem with many crabs, but I have had, several times, a single crab do me damage.
I throw ice water into the bucket to throw them into a semi-suspended animation. Blue crab live from Canada to South America, but cold water tends to numb them into senselessness, which is good for your fingers, and any squeamishness which may come very soon.
Into a big stockpot goes water, kosher salt, Old Bay seasoning, a bottle of beer, and a lemon cut into two pieces:
Now, there’s no way around it. The deed has to be done. There are those who know how to skewer a blue crab from underneath (right above the sex-point, yet below the mouth) to kill it immediately. On the other hand, dropping a crab into boiling water head-first makes it “gasp” boiling water over its entire internal organ sack, killing it pretty much instantly, especially if it’s pretty much asleep and acting on reflex in the first place. Personally, I think trying to stab into a crab’s undershell over and over, trying to find a nerve nexus smaller than a comma on a 10-point font to be more cruel, but if you know exactly where to impale a crab brain, feel free. I figure it’s not that much different from stunning a cow-brain with a .22 between the eyes right before slaughter, anyway.
Ten to fifteen minutes, and they’re done.
Since the main top shell is going in the bisque to flavor the broth, I like to scrub the shells a bit. There’s sand and mud and such on the outside, which would be annoying in a bisque.
Here’s the definitive gender characteristic of the blue crab. See this hinge on the bottom of the crab? Males have an upside-down “T” that looks fairly phallic (even though their (ahem) two sex organs are beneath it). Females don’t have the “T”. They’re sorta equilateral triangles. It’s really not hard to tell the difference — T or triangle.
Then, the painstaking task of cleaning the crabs commences. There’s a few tips, from discarding the gills and organs and fat (which some call the “mustard” which has a nice briny flavor, yet is not welcome in my version of bisque) but basically, statisticians have figured, you only get about 15% meat by weight from a blue crab. But, you get about 300% more thin cuts on your fingers than before you started, which tends to reduce the guilt about boiling them alive. I save the big shells and claw shells for the bisque stock.
The bisque itself basically starts with a butter sautée of mirepoix, but I do it with celery, carrots, and shallots (replacing the traditional onion)
After the veggies sweat for a bit, I toss in the crab shells
After everything sizzles for a while, I add a couple cups of chicken stock (sitting in my freezer for just such an occasion) and some white wine. Top with just plain water until everything is covered by an inch or so.
Smash the crab shells to increase the flavor. I don’t know why — more surface area in contact with the stock? But, it’s tradition to smash the shells.
This stews at a light simmer for a while. Maybe a half hour, maybe more. Last night, it was closer to 45 minutes. Then, I added some cooked white rice, about a cup
Let the rice absorb some of the stock (maybe 5-10 minutes), and then the wand-blender comes into action blending as much as it can in the pot. The result gets strained through a strainer with cheesecloth, with as much blended goodness forced through as possible.
The strained goodness gets poured back into the same pot, and a cup of heavy cream is added, along with a couple tablespoons of tomato puree.
This gets whisked together, and will simmer very gently for another half hour or so.
At this point, I realized that the bisque itself, while rich, is not quite a meal in itself. So, I decided to whip together a quick stir-fry with rice noodles, shrimp, soy sauce, and wasabi. It almost was like tapas — a couple small meals making the whole — except I put a whole lot more effort into the bisque than the stir-fry. But, to document the whole meal, I chopped some shallots into a fine dice, crushed some garlic, and chopped some carrots into spears
Olive oil and a touch of chili oil into a pan
Toss in the carrots, shallots, and garlic, then soy, and some lemon juice
Then, shrimp until just under-cooked, then the rice noodles, and toss until done. Drizzle some wasabi over that, and blend together
Bisque, with the crab meat piled into the center, sprinkled with Old Bay:
And, soy-wasabi stir fry: