Sassy Southern Cooking with a French Twist

crab

A Reluctant Crustacean Killer and The Curious Case of Delicious Crab Bisque

When it comes to killing (unless you count mosquitoes) , I’m a wuss. I can’t even stamp out a palmetto bug (a.k.a. cockroach). Once, when I was twelve, while retrieving the mail from our mailbox in Florida, a pretty green lizard leaped out from the box into my face. Terrified,  I slammed the door shut, automatically decapitating the poor little guy.  I wept for hours, assembling his remains, burying them, and building a small cross out of twigs for his grave. At Le Cordon Bleu, on the day we were making eel stew, yours truly was handed one of the few live ones that slithered on my board as I tried, and failed, to cut off its huge head. Chef Jackie Martin had to rescue me, screaming and faint having somehow flown to the corner across the room, wrap the eel’s head with string, and bang it against the stainless steel cupboards until it was lifeless.  Twenty years later, I’m not sure I’ve yet recovered from that one.

Dogs, cats, cows, pigs, lambs, goats, horses – I love them all, really truly all of God’s creatures (though I still struggle with snakes). But its those spiny, ancient creatures of the cold Atlantic waters for which I have a special affinity and sympathy. I think it’s because I grew up outside of Boston and summers were always spent in Maine where lobster, steamers and drawn butter were regularly served to sate our young bodies, spent from hours playing in the sea. How I loved eating lobster then, as I do now, I just hated the killing part, and I still do. That’s why the little hypocrite in me lets someone else do it, though I did once rescue and release a 60 year-old lobster from the steamer tank into the waters off Rockport, MA which somewhere assuages my extreme lobster killer guilt.

All of that changed a few days ago. I was preparing to make and test lobster and a crab

Beautiful Boiled Lobsters (photo from lobsterfrommaine.com)

Beautiful Boiled Lobsters (photo from lobsterfrommaine.com)

bisque recipes for The French Cook: Soupes et Daubes (Gibbs Smith, September 2014).

Impossibly torn at the sheer joy of savoring one of my favorite things, a delicious seafood bisque (or two),  and the sheer horror of the inevitable: I was about to become a lobster and crab killer.  Because their internal organs and flesh rot very quickly and bacteria mounts fast when dead, these crustaceans really must be cooked alive. And, in the case of a bisque (of any kind) the shells are a crucial part of building the flavor. And, shells from a cooked lobster or crab, don’t give off the same flavor as shells from a raw lobster or crab, where the fresh, raw flavor seeps into the fumet as it cooks.

So, off I went to my affable advisors at the seafood counter at The Harris Teeter in downtown, Charleston, eye-balling a couple of handsome, pre-cooked lobsters. Full of hope, I told Doug what I was making and asked him (knowing the answer) if I could just use the pre-cooked guys. “No, you have to use live,” he said, resolutely.

Next stop, Crosby’s Seafood, uptown. The kind lady there plucked two, 1 3/4 pound beauties out of the tank (I couldn’t stop thinking about their already traumatic journey from the bottom of the craggy, cold Maine waters, to a trap, to a plane, and once again to this tank in SC), and now she was putting them in a paper bag. I asked her to double the paper (images of that eel enforcing images of  panicked pinchers breaking through), which she did, also wrapping it with plastic. Same for the poor crabs, though I felt less sorry for them somehow, for reasons I can’t explain. I confessed my concerns about limiting their pain, erasing it if at all possible. I couldn’t bring myself to do the one method Doug had recommended (sticking a knife between their primal, groping black eyes). She suggested something else. Put them in a freezer for about 30 minutes. This “puts them to sleep,” so going into the pot is less traumatic.

Hopeful, I asked my neighbor Lucie to house the crustaceans in her large freezer, while I prepared to cook them. I put on two large pots of salted water to boil.  By now trembling, I decided to start with the crabs because they were smaller and it would be faster. Well, that part proved true, but one of them almost successfully crawled out of the pot. I was able to get him back in there. Less than 10 minutes later, it was over. Now, it was time to tackle the big boys. It didn’t go well and I hesitate to explain it in detail (I didn’t even take pictures because I didn’t want to exploit them), but suffice to say, the first guy didn’t want to go in and he wasn’t asleep.  I had to take a fifteen minute time out to breathe and calm down, but now I was ready to make bisque.

The recipe that follows is made from fresh blue crab, thickened with a flour roux, and finished with cream, sweet lump crab meat, fresh thyme, Old Bay Seasoning and fresh thyme. It is sublime! If you, like me, suffer from crustacean killer guilt, keep in mind that you are using every single part of these creatures and absolutely nothing goes to waste – it’s purely crustacean bisque and so delicious it will make you cry, but in a good way. It may seem like a lot of work, and frankly it is. But, you can do it in three parts: 1) steam the crabs and strain the fumet base, 2) make the bisque base, strain and store overnight in the fridge, 3) finish the bisque in minutes the next day.Blue Crab Bisque with Old Bay Seasoning, Vermouth and Fresh Thyme

Blue Crab Bisque with Old Bay Seasoning, Vermouth and Fresh Thyme

Recipe

Blue Crab Bisque with Old Bay Seasoning, Vermouth and Fresh Thyme 

(Makes 6 to 8 servings)

To steam the crabs for the fumet base:

8 cups water

1 tablespoon salt

6 live blue crabs (about 3 pounds total)

For the bisque base:

4 tablespoons butter

1 leek, trimmed to 1″- above white base, halved horizontally, well rinsed and finely chopped

1 onion, peeled, halved and finely chopped

2 stalks celery, trimmed, and finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Reserved shells from the crab fumet

3/4 cup dry vermouth

2 bay leaves

To finish the bisque:

2 tablespoons butter

1 large shallot, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning

3  tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup heavy cream

8 ounces (1 cup) lumb crab meat

Reserved meat from steamed blue crabs (about 1/4 cup)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves

Start with the fumet base. Bring the water and salt up to a vigorous boil in a 5 1/2 quart Dutch oven or similarly- sized pot. Add the crabs all at once. Cover, and reduce to high simmer over medium high. Cook 8 minutes. Remove from the pot and set aside to cool. Strain the cooking liquid through a very fine sieve or Chinois into a large bowl. Set aside. When the crabs are cool, pull off their legs and set to the side of your work surface. Pull of their backs, rinse, and add to the shell pile. Pull the little tab up on the bottom of their bodies to release, remove (saving for shell pile), remove and discard the gills and rinse off any bitter green matter, or “tomalley.” Carefully, work inside the bodies to remove any sweet flesh and be attentive to removing and discarding any bits of shell or cartilage. Reserve the meat in the fridge. With a mallet or the bottom of a sturdy sauce pan, smash the reserved shells into smaller bits. This will help them to release flavor on the next step of the bisque journey, and probably the most important one, the bisque base.

To prepare the bisque base, melt the butter over medium heat in the same Dutch oven or pot, rinsed. Add the leek, onion, celery, a generous dash of salt and pepper, and Old Bay Seasoning. Stir to coat, cooking five minutes or until just softened. Add the flour, stir, and cook another minute. Add the reserved shells, stir to coat and cook 2 minutes. Add the Dry Vermouth, increase heat to high and cook down to a glaze. Add the reserved, strained fumet base, 2 bay leaves and a generous pinch salt. Bring up to a boil over high, reduce to a simmer over medium, medium low, cooking uncovered for 25 minutes, skimming off foam and elimating as you go. Strain through a China cap or fine sieve/colander into a large bowl, pressing hard against the solids to release flavor before discarding them.  Set the bisque base aside.

To finish the bisque, melt the butter in the same Dutch oven or pot, rinsed, over medium heat. Add the shallot, a dash of salt and pepper, and Old Bay Seasoning. Stir to coat and cook until just softened, 5 minutes. Add the flour, stir to coat and cook through one minute. Stir in the cream, lump crab meat, reserved blue crab flesh. Taste carefully and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Stir gently to avoid breaking up the crab. Serve steaming hot with a garnish of fresh thyme for each bowl.

Bon appetit!

 

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Bechamel Embellished

Voila!  The stock and fumet chapter is put to bed, so now it’s onto bechamel in the new sauce book. Some might argue, and in fact some of my friends have, that bechamel is boring. One of the five French mother sauces, I agree that it is certainly basic. It’s a simple white roux, sometimes flavored with a bit of onion and finished with milk and/or cream and seasoning.

But to me, that’s a huge part of bechamel’s beauty. The simple flavor backdrop and creamy, slightly thick consistency sets a dynamic flavor potential stage that help it evolve into anything from a Nantua to a Soubise with the addition of herbs, stock, cheese, or really just about anything that makes sense depending on what you’re pairing it with. Consider a chive and Parmesan bechamel over soft-scrambled eggs and toast or seasoned with mushrooms and wine as a tasty pasta topper? The possibilities are literally endless!

Not just a sauce, bechamel is also the tasty glue that holds together casseroles and gratins, as it does in this recipe I tested in my kitchen yesterday.

Crunchy Crustacean Gratin

 

The inspiration for the recipe came from a visit to my local fish monger. I found some gorgeous seasonal shrimp and some beautiful fresh stone crab (one pound of each). I crushed the crab with a mallet, leaving the raw flesh in place, and peeled and de-veined the shrimp. Both the crab and the shrimp shells went into a large pot with a bit of butter and a finely chopped leek and a finely chopped small onion. After it softened, I deglazed the pan with a fat splash of Chardonnay, reduced it down, added 8 cups of water, and allowed the whole thing to simmer lightly, skimming along the way (see previous post) until it reduced by half. Then, I strained the entire fumet, discarding the solids, returned it to the pan and reduced it until it was down to a cup of liquid. The result is known as a glace – in this case a crustacean glace. Two tablespoons of this were whisked into the bechamel, along with some herbs and seasonings to top the beautiful fresh shrimp and some more lump crab. The result was creamy, rich goodness that utterly defies the concept of a boring bechamel! Sacre bleu!

Crunchy Crab and Shrimp Gratin

(Makes 8 to 10 portions)

Basic Bechamel

1 shallot, finely chopped

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 tablespoons All Purpose flour

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 cups cold skim milk

1 cup cold Half & Half

Heat a medium sauce pan over medium heat. Add the butter and shallot and sweat to soften, for about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the flour and whisk to incorporate. Cook another 2 – 3 minutes, whisking, and avoiding coloring the roux. Add the milk and Half and Half all at once, whisking to incorporate smoothly. Increase the heat to medium high and bring the bechamel up to a gentle boil. Reduce heat slightly, and continue cooking until thickened enough to coat a spoon and the flour flavor has cooked out – about 5 minutes. Season careful to taste with salt and pepper. Reserve warm for the gratin recipe, which only uses half of this recipe. The rest will store fine in the refrigerator for a couple days until you’re ready to make those eggs!

For the gratin:

1/2 recipe Basic Bechamel (above)

1 tablespoon sweet Vermouth

2 tablespoons of crustacean glace (see top of the column for instructions on preparation) OR substitute best quality fish stock or clam juice

2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning

Generous dash Tabasco sauce

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

1 pound shrimp, peeled, de-veined and coarsely chopped

1 pound lump crab meat

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup bread crumbs tossed with 4 tablespoons softened butter

Preheat oven to 375F. Prepare the basic bechamel. Divide in half reserving the remainder for future use. While still warm, whisk in the Vermouth, glace, scallions, parsley, Old Bay Seasoning, Tabasco, lemon juice. Taste carefully and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, arrange the shrimp in the bottom of a shallow,   baking dish or pie pan. Top with an even layer of the crab. Pour the bechamel over the top, spreading with a spatula to distribute it evenly. Top with a layer of the bread crumbs. Bake until golden and bubbling, 20 – 25 minutes. Serve warm! All this needs is a small salad to be a meal, and also makes a great appetizer with toast points.

Bon appetit!

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Crazy Simple Canape Cups for Hassle-Free Holiday Fun

It’s getting to be that most wonderful time of the year again. As we approach the early stages of holiday planning, the best way to embrace blazing fires, cold nights, time with family and friends, and fabulous feasts, the best plan is to keep it simple, plan ahead, and have fun. Otherwise, the most wonderful time of the year can feel like the worst time of your life.

One way to have a good time without investing half your bank account and countless hours (even days) in the kitchen, is to share canapes and cocktails with a small group of family and/or friends. The little cups, cradled (in both these recipes) with prepared mini-fillo pastry cups, are beautiful, crisp and delicious, and can be prepared within minutes – 15 or less if you move along briskly. Both pair beautifully with a cold glass of Champagne or crisp white wine. It’s also a lovely way to begin a holiday dinner and whet the appetites of all those about to sit down for the more substantial feast that awaits.

Crunchy Crab Cup Canapes

(Makes 30 individual canapes)

This recipe is an even easier adaptation of a slightly more demanding version from Tart Love, Sassy Savory and Sweet. In the book, I recommend making your own pastry – which is just fine and something I believe in, big time. However, the other day when I was coming up with a new recipe for Slather Brand Foods, I encountered Athens Brand Mini-Fillo Shells, and decided that these prepared shells would provide a harried-free alternative for frustrated Thanksgiving and holiday chefs everywhere. Indeed, they’re delicious and just need a few minutes to brown, crisp and heat through in the oven. The cool, sprite, crab-rich salad is the perfect texture counter to fill the canapes and looks and tastes merrily festive.

Photo by Helene Dujardin

 

Here’s the recipe:

30 Athens Brand Mini-Fillo Shells (2 packages or substitute another brand)

For the filling:

1 1/2 cups pasteurized lump crab meat

2 tablespoons capers

1/2 cup finely chopped red onion

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives

Zest of 1 lime

1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoon Dijon or sweet/hot mustard

2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

Generous dash hot sauce

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange the cups on a baking sheet, leaving space between them. Bake for 8 minutes, or until browned and warmed through. Remove and set aside at room temperature.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Very gently place the crab, capers, onion, chives, and zest in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients. Whisk vigorously to combine. Top the crab mixture with the blended mixture and fold gently with a wooden spoon to combine, being careful not to break up the crab. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Fill the canape cups (they can be room temperature or barely warm) within an hour of serving. Garnish with a few short spears of fresh chives, if desired.

Slathered Brie & Pecan Cups

(Makes 30 individual canapes)

Easy and elegant, these ooey, gooey cups of warm, rich cheese are topped with zesty Original Slather Sauce and a crisp layer of crunchy pecans. Prepared with the same prepared fillo cups used in the previous recipe, they look so impressive and taste so delicious, your holiday guests will think you’ve spent hours in the kitchen, when in fact they come together in just minutes. The final of twelve recipes I developed for Slather Brand Foods this past year, it’s one of my favorites. The sauce is chunky, sweet, tart, and round all at once – an incredibly versatile addition to your condiment larder. To find it, go to, www.slatheriton.com for a complete listing of retail outlets and online purchasing options. You’ll be glad you did!

30 Athens Brand Mini-Fillo Shells (two packages – or substitute another brand)

1/2 pound best-quality Brie cheese, cut into 1/2″-thick cubes

1/2 cup Original Slather Sauce

1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Freshly ground black pepper to finish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange the cups on a baking sheet. Place a cube of the prepared cheese into the bottom of each cup. Top each with 1/2 teaspoon of Original Slather Sauce. Top each with 1/2 teaspoon of the chopped pecans. Bake on the middle rack until golden and bubbly, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for about five minutes.

To serve, arrange on a pretty platter and drizzle the cups with the fresh parsley and a dash of freshly ground black pepper. The pepper is not mandatory, but works very nicely with the mellow flavor of the cheese and the sweetness of the sauce. These are best served warm.

Wishing you all a wonderful, delicious, and stress-free holiday season!

 

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Funky, Fresh Seafood Shack

Zesty Shrimp Salad of Wild Georgia Shrimp

It took me three drive-by’s and lots of recommendations to finally take the proverbial stab at The Crab Shack on Tybee Island. With all of its endearingly cheesy fishing kitsch (complete with an alligator pond and a giant red crab at the entrance), it just smacked of one of my least favorite two words: tourist trap.

A giant crab adorns the main entrance at The Crab Shack

So, finally, on a crystal clear blue sky, perfect late summer afternoon, I took the scenic drive along Highway 80 East from downtown Savannah out to historic and beautiful Tybee Island. The tide was so high it hugged the road, just a sliver at times, so tightly it almost felt like I was steering a boat rather than a car.

Even though The Crab Shack bears the same name as a local Charleston restaurant chain, it actually has a lot more in common with celebrated Bowen’s Island. It’s near a funky beach community, its on a dirt road off the main highway, there is a large sign off the  main road to let you know it’s there, there are magnificent water views, and the food is fabulous.

Like Bowen’s, The Crab Shack began as a fishing camp, though much more recently. It’s  owned by former fisherman  Captain Jack Flanigan. The entire place ambles along like an old, covered, pier and is decorated with lots of colorful love, from the upside down wooden crate lamps to whirring fans and mist machines. Food comes out on styrofoam plates and an ample supply of paper towels while seabreezes from water so close you can practically touch it with your toes seasons the space with salty air.

Lowcountry staples like a chunky Lowcountry boil with corn so sweet it tastes like its been basted with buttered sugar, and huge chunks of corn and sausage, snow crab, Alaskan king crab, blue crab, Dungeness crab and stone crab platters form the backbone of the sizeable menu. Surprisingly,  The Crab Shack also turns out some amazing  smoked in-house, barbecue ribs, chicken and pork platters. Plastic fork tender and steeped in flavor, all come as a surprise bonus at a seafood shack, in particular the ultra-tender, smoky chicken.

I was in a delicate appetite mood, so opted for the shrimp salad (pictured above). As you see, it was full of fat, absolutely local Wild Georgia shrimp, that was simultaneously sweet and briny in each bite. It was barely cloaked in mayonnaise and strongly seasoned with Old Bay Seasoning enhanced with the crunch of the occasional bite of celery. Truly delicious and reasonably priced ($12.99) it was enough to easily feed two hungry souls and offered definite proof in the authentically local seafood pudding.

The Crab Shack attracts a diverse crowd, from blue-colored workers to little old ladies and boisterious tots, that all share in the fun together. That’s what eating at The Crab Shack feels like – pure, unadulterated fun that grows on you with each delicious bite and each Jimmy Buffett tune that cranks from the sound system. Give the shack a crab crack or two!

While you’re in this part of town, you also want to be sure and check out:

The Sundae Cafe (lunch/dinner – dinner reservations recommended)

www.sundaecafe.com

Ele Fine Fusion (dinner only – reservations recommended)

www.elesavannah.com

 As always, bon appetit, Savannah style!

 

 

 

 

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