For those of you who follow a pescatarian diet I’ll have one or two pieces on sustainable fish in the near future.
When I arrived in sunny Sydney in mid-December 1969, fresh from snow-covered Paris, I was taken the next day to Watson’s Bay to a dinky seafood bar atop a small pier and spotted a tray filled with lobster sandwiches, next to a tray of (shrimp) prawn sandwiches. I thought at the time that I had discovered heaven and it’s Down Under! First impressions never leave, and to this day I remember exactly how I felt about this new country! Ecstatic.
According to my trusty Larousse Gastronomique, there are approximately 4,500 different species of crabs living on Earth. The good thing is that they are evenly distributed throughout the world.
And here’s something I didn’t know:
The crab is one of the oldest species on earth. The horseshoe crab dates back over 200 million years and is literally a living fossil. Most people are aware of the zodiac sign of Cancer, named for the constellation which resembles the outline of a crab.
Crabs are a good source of chromium, which works with insulin in the metabolism of sugar helping the body to maintain normal blood glucose levels. Studies indicate chromium helps to raise the levels of HDL (or “good” cholesterol), which can reduce the risk of coronary artery disease and strokes. It is especially beneficial for diabetics.
Again, from Larousse:
Crab and shellfish also contain goodly amounts of selenium, a trace element of critical importance that works as an antioxidant, detoxifying potentially carcinogenic substances such as mercury, cadmium, and arsenic which could lead to tumors. Studies have shown that test patients with the highest blood selenium levels have the lowest cancer rates. It also helps protect against heart and circulatory diseases.
One cannot write about crab without revealing at least one recipe for crab cakes. Not much is known of the origins of the famed crab cake though I would venture that in France we have been eating rissoles and croquettes for centuries and they may be their precursors. Here’s another tidbit of history:
The term “Crab Cake” dates back to 1930 in Crosby Gaiges, New York World’s Fair Cookbook, where they were called “Baltimore Crab cakes”, suggesting their popularity in the South. They were introduced to the colonies by English settlers.
In any case I have made up several variations over the years and here’s the one that I think may be my best;
Crab Cake Thai Style:
for 4 to 6 persons you will need 1 pound of clean (and shell free) crab meat, 2 whole free range eggs, 2 cups of freshly made breadcrumbs (I usually bang a few bits of bread into oven with a dash of olive oil and a couple of garlic cloves, bake for 15 minutes, and use the processor to crumb it), 2 ounces of desiccated coconut, a small bunch of cilantro, 4 green Thai chillies, the juice of 1 lime and have a bottle of sunflower oil at hand for frying. If you want to get a richer taste, melt a little (real) butter in the frying pan with oil.
Beat the eggs in a medium-sized bowl. Add the coconut, lime juice, finaly minced (and de-seeded) Thai chillies, salt and pepper to taste and fold in the chopped cilantro. Gently fold in the crab meat and the fresh crumbs until well combined. Shape the mix into 2 inch patties and start frying over low to medium heat until done. I would place them over some kitchen paper to mop the extra fat and serve with an elitist salad. Or, as the pic below suggests, make a sandwich and be done with it!
If you come across a few stone or mud crabs, you can use their shells for stuffing, and like Scallops Mornay, a quick bake and a few minutes under the grill will give you a sensational dish. In Provence we use fresh fennel into the mix and here’s my take:
Crabe Farcis à la provençale:
all you need to do is to take a look at the pic below to see how easy this can be. By the way, always check with the Seafood Watch program before you buy your seafood, compliments of the Monterey Bay Aquarium crew. It recommends which seafood to buy or avoid, helping consumers to become advocates for environmentally friendly seafood.
For 4 persons you will need 4 whole crabs, their shells and their meat (I assume you know how to boil a crab and remove its contents); 2 fennel bulbs, 6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced, 1 leek, finely chopped up, the juice of 1 large lemon, a handful of basil leaves, 1 cup of Bechamel sauce, 1 cup of fresh breadcrumbs (see above recipe) and some olive oil with a knob of butter, salt &pepper to taste. I sometimes add a teaspoon of fenugreek to the mix, but it’s optional, some people don’t like the taste.
This is as easy as shelling peas! Dice the fennel bulbs and fry with half olive oil & butter for a minute then add the garlic and the white of the leek. Cook for another 2 minutes and pour the contents into a medium-sized bowl. Add the Mornay sauce, fold in the crab meat and the crumbs, then the chopped basil leaves, the lemon juice and check seasoning to your liking, mix well with a rubber spatula and fill the (washed) crab shells with the mixture. Sprinkle a little olive oil on top and bake for 15 minutes into a medium-heat oven. Take out of oven and pour the rest of (melted) butter over the shells and stick them under the grill for 5 minutes. Serve with a potato salad laced with aioli ( -AAF- my knock-out recipe), and you may be in heaven.
Lobster is often associated with luxury and romance though not many realize that like shrimp, it can be eaten occasionally because they are lower in cholesterol than previously thought, and do not contain too much saturated fat (in fact it has less fat and calories than many cuts of beef and pork). It’s hard to believe that lobster was once considered poor man’s food and was even used as fish bait!
At the time North America was receiving its first European settlers, lobsters were abundant, often washing up on shore to form piles up to two feet high. Since they were so plentiful and easy to harvest, lobsters were a frequent meal for poor families near the coast. The disdain for lobster slowly waned over the centuries, and the poor man’s chicken soon became the rich man’s prize.
The Maine lobster (above) is as sustainable as any properly farmed shellfish can be. The next thing is to know how to kill a lobster without making it suffer (vegans & vegetarians, do not read the following ;.) In my cooking days in Sydney I used to get around 50 of the buggers from Tasmania, flown in once a week by a madman. The way to do it ethically is to stick them in the freezer for half an hour, and as they are numb with the cold, one has to be really fast with a knife. It beats plunging them into boiling water, believe me.
The flesh of the lobster tail is full of flavor and does not need fancy sauces to accompany it: the simpler it is prepared, the better. I will give you my three favorite ways to eat lobster, a bisque, a salad and a stir-fry.
This is the Rolls-Royce of bisque! For 4 to 6 servings you need one (whole) lobster, a glass of Cognac, half a pint of very dry white wine, half a pint of fresh cream, 2 red bell peppers, diced, 2 carrots, peeled and diced, 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced finely, 1 leek, finely chopped up, 2 spoonfuls of tomato paste, a pinch of flour, a knob of butter, a few basil leaves, 2 bay leaves, some cracked pepper and 1 pint of chicken stock.
First cut the lobster in half and bake it in to a medium heat oven for 15 minutes. Remove the meat from the shell and set aside. Put back the lobster shell in oven, add the wine and cook for a further 30 minutes. This will give the bisque its unique shellfish taste. Remove from oven and sieve the liquid carefully, it’s gold! In a saucepan, add a little butter, then the leek, garlic, bell peppers, and carrots and cook for a couple of minutes. Add a little more butter and a pinch or two of plain flour. This will make a quick roux. Cook while stirring for 2 minutes and add the Cognac, and the chicken stock gradually, the bay leaves and then the tomato paste, and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the cream and the cut up lobster meat. Cook for a further 5 minutes, add the basil and use the processor to purée the whole thing. Check the seasoning (I’d put a pinch of cracked pepper) and serve with some chopped basil leaves on top and a dollop of cream for effect. Another way to cook this with less cream is to add a handful of baby potatoes to it…less fattening.
The simplest way to eat a lobster salad is to add some avocado to it and a kick-ass hazelnut oil dressing. I’ve tried an exotic version as well, with green papaya but it’s hard to come by.
Lobster & Avocado Salad:
There you have it. You will need 1 lobster tail per person, 2 or 3 avocados, depending on size, a bed of frizzy lettuce (or frisée, as we call it), 1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard, a dash of raspberry vinegar (or a good Balsamic), 4 fluid ounces of hazelnut oil, the juice of 1 lime, salt & pepper to taste. In a mixing bowl add the mustard and whisk in the raspberry vinegar, the lime juice and gradually the hazelnut oil. Slice the avocado (or leave in in half shell, up to you) dress the tails on top of the frisée salad leaves and pour the dressing evenly (and equally) over them. This is a meal in itself, especially if you serve a baby potato salad with it.
If you want to treat yourself to a grand dish, this is the one! I used to serve this in Sydney, minimum fuss and preparation but what a powerful bouquet it made when dousing it with Mirabelle.
Lobster stir fry Mirabelle:
if you want to impress someone this is it. You need half a tail per person (you can simply buy 2 large green tails and be done with it as you won’t need the head & shell for stock), 12 shallots (this kind, not the scallions), finely minced, the white of 1 leek, also finely minced, a bunch of chives, finely chopped, a large nob of butter and half a glass (4 to 6 shots) of Mirabelle Eau de Vie. Salt & pepper to taste.
Chop up the lobster tails into medallions of about 1 inch thick. In a sauté pan, add half the butter, the leek, and shallots, cook for 1 minute and add the medallions and the rest of the butter. This is a quick stir-fry so use a pair of tongs to turn them over and over until cooked. This should not last more than 5 or 6 minutes. When the tails are done, add the chives, pour the Mirabelle and light a match. Serve immediately with green beans and either Jasmine-scented rice or potato cakes.