Saturday, June 26, 2010

Blue Crabs and Beer -- A Perfect Summer Day

A bright and sunny summer day calls for blue crabs. It is reminiscent of a balmy day at the beach, chilly Heineken in hand and Old–Bay-spiced blue crabs spread out over a checkered red-and-white picnic blanket on the sand. Seeking to recreate these comforting memories, I ventured out of my house to Chinatown, which is both the most economical and has the widest selection of blue crabs in terms of size and maturation.

Seafood markets dot Grand Street between Bowery and Allen Street. Each vendor seems to be a clone of the next, dizzying even the self-proclaimed savvy shopper. Luckily, having grown up in the Lower East Side, I was familiar with the markets and quickly ventured to the best of them.

Aqua Best, Inc., located at 276 Grand Street (btwn. Eldridge and Forsyth Sts.), has an expansive selection of blue crabs, ranging from the very small (and similarly priced), to the over-sized. I opted for the crabs in the upper range because I like my crabs to be meaty and rich. If you don't mind the price, you should too.

I purchased a dozen of the best-looking blue crabs along with a large Dungeness crab. I figured, since I was doing a crab-themed feast, I might as well bring to the table a varied selection.

Once home, I unloaded the crabs in my kitchen sink. They were alive indeed, as evidenced by their crazed attacks on their crustacean brethren. Below, a blue crab triumphs over his brother; he ripped the unfortunate sap's leg off:

Initially, I felt discomfort by placing the larger Dungeness in the same sink as the small blue crabs, for fear that they would duke it out and harm each other. However, the sagely Dungeness commanded the respect of his smaller and more youthful counterparts, siring over the others like a lord would over his serfs.

I gave the blue crabs a good rinse to get rid of any vestiges of their previous home: seaweed, sand, and ocean bits.

The next step involved prepping the steamer. Like me, you probably don't own a steamer. Fear not! A steamer is one of the easiest things to MacGyver. My parents taught me a trick that I've other chefs and cooks have repeatedly reinforced. Take a large pot and place a few flat items on the bottom. Good candidates: ramekins (what I used), a colander, a few forks and a large plate, the possibilities go on. It's best to stick with something flat and high so you have a level steaming surface that can hold a lot of weight.

Once I put a few ramekins down, I put a round metal disc with lots of holes to allow the steam to come through. I'm lucky to have one of these. You can use a plate without much loss in integrity.

I decided to steam the crabs with a mixture of beer, apple cider, and vinegar. I initially wanted to use a cider vinegar but alas, I couldn't find it. Also, I wanted to enjoy the summer day more than walking the aisles of an overcrowded Whole Foods, so I decided to try the mixture.

Any beer will do; I settled for a chilly Heineken, bringing to mind a relaxing day at the beach, lazing in plastic chairs with gulls circling overhead, sand dollars and sea stars afoot, the rhythmic waves pounding the shore. It is like therapeutic nature music. I settled on classic tunes by the Beach Boys to cook to.

I poured twelve ounces of Heineken, half a cup of white vinegar, and half a cup of apple cider into my makeshift steamer.

I covered and brought this mixture to a rapid boil. The crabs, sensing their doom, were extremely feisty to the end. I sustained an injury while handling one. Use tongs! Even with tongs, they were extremely scary -- very fast on foot and very sharp claws ready to snap.

Each layer of shellfish I put down, I sprinkled a healthy amount of Old Bay seasoning, a blend from Maryland consisting of mustard, paprika, celery seed, bay leaf, cracked black and red pepper, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, salt, and ginger.

They initially resisted and shifted around in the pot, but eventually the steam rendered them slow and comatose, descending slowly into the realm of eternal slumber.

I steamed the critters for 25 minutes. When I raised the lid, a heavenly scent of spice and crab meat entered my nostrils, exciting me for the feast that was to come. A frigid Budweiser or Heineken served in an icy glass is a perfect accompaniment.

The Dungeness crab was easier to prepare. I brought a large pot of water seasoned heavily with salt and Old Bay to a boil, and boiled the crustacean for 12 minutes.

Summer days are truly glorious.

Source: Sam Sifton of the NYTimes

12 ounces beer

1 cup apple-cider vinegar

1 dozen large blue crabs

½ cup Chesapeake-style crab seasoning, preferably Old Bay.

1. Place a steamer pot or any large, heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid on the stove. (In the latter case, improvise a rack on the bottom of the pot that will keep crabs a few inches from the bottom.) Add the beer, vinegar and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil over high heat.

2. Put a layer of crabs on the rack in the pot. Sprinkle with a generous amount of seasoning, then repeat with another layer, and another, until all 12 crabs are in pot (and well seasoned). Cover and steam over medium-high heat until the crabs are bright red, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove the crabs with tongs. Serve over newspaper, with mallets and picks. Serves 4.


1 large dungeness crab (you can do two or even three without modifying the recipe)

water to fill a large pot

1 cup Old Bay seasoning


white wine vinegar (optional)

1. Bring a large pot filled with water to a boil. Season with enough salt to make the water taste of seawater and optionally add white wine vinegar. Also add 1 cup Old Bay seasoning.

2. Meanwhile, scrub the Dungeness crab carefully with a seafood brush under cold water, removing all ocean bits, seaweed, and sand.

3. Place Dungeness crab (if rubber-banded, leave it on still) into boiling mixture and cover. Lower heat to medium-high.

4. Boil for 10-12 minutes and drain. Serve optionally with butter. Serves 2.