Thursday, June 2, 2011

An Epicurean in the Carolinas

Whenever I go on a vacation, I always try to find a good "foodie" experience.  It could be a really good restaurant.  It could also be a behind-the-scenes tour of a brewery, vineyard or other local producer.  During our recent vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I discovered the Outer Banks Epicurean and a soft shell crab cooking course. 

Founded by Amy Huggins, Outer Banks Epicurean is a beacon for the Slow Food and Slow Fish Movements in the Outer Banks, shining a light on fresh and local ingredients.  At her store on Colington Island, which is in Kill Devil Hills, Amy sells a variety of wines and foodstuffs.  One notable product is the Outer Banks Sea Salt, which she produces herself at her store.  Amy also offers meals to go and catering using local, organic and sustainable ingredients.

What initially caught my attention was the fact that Amy offers cooking courses and, more specifically, a cooking course focused on soft-shell crabs.  I have had prior experience cooking soft shell crabs when I worked at a seafood restaurant.  I have also taken a few cooking courses and really enjoyed the opportunities to learn new techniques or new ways to use ingredients.  So, I wanted to share this enjoyment with my beautiful wife and her parents, all of whom love to cook.  I arranged for the four of us to participate in the soft-shell crab cooking class, which also included dinner and a wine tasting.

The location of Outer Banks Epicurean makes it an ideal place to learn how to cook soft-shell crabs.  It is a stone's throw from Endurance Seafood, which is one of the largest cultivators and processors of soft shell crabs in the United States.   Amy told us about how semi-trucks depart from Endurance Seafood with thousands of soft shell crabs destined for wholesalers and customers along the eastern United States.   Amy was able to procure eighteen, very substantial soft shell crabs.  I have to say that the soft-shell crabs that she obtained from Endurance Seafood were some of the largest soft shells that I had ever seen ...  and eaten.

Amy organized the cooking class very well, beginning with a brief introduction where we all sat at the table and talked about food over some very delicious Cava from Castellbranch and a shrimp and cheese appetizer that was equally delicious.  Her passion for locally grown and produced foods, as well as sustainable fish, was clearly evident from our discussion.  After some wine and food, we proceeded to the instructional part of the evening.

Amy's cooking process is a lot like mine, eyeballing the amounts of ingredients for a recipe and adding a little more of the ingredients as I cook based upon the taste of the dish.  The cooking involved the preparation of two courses, which could each constitute a meal in and of itself.  The first course was sauteed soft-shell crabs with a lemon caper sauce, served with blue cheese mashed potatoes.  The second course was fried soft-shell crabs with a mustard cream sauce, served with fire-kissed collared greens, along with fresh arugula and spinach. 

Clare's parents, Frank and Geri, along with Clare and myself, prepared each of the courses.  The first course and preparation was fairly straightforward.  We dipped each soft shell crab into some flour and shook off the excess flour. We then heated a pan and added a combination of extra virgin olive oil and unsalted butter.  We sauteed the soft shells in batches until they were a nice red color, which took several minutes for each batch. We then worked on the sauce, using some of the fat from sauteing the soft shell crabs, adding some flour and starting what would ordinarily be a roux.  We added the juice from some freshly squeezed lemons and some white wine and the capers.  After adding some salt and pepper, the sauce was ready.   While everyone was cooking the crabs, Geri also prepared the blue cheese mashed potatoes. This dish was very delicious. 
For the second course, we fried the soft shell crabs.  When I worked at a seafood restaurant, I used the deep fryer to cook soft shell crabs.  However, we learned to fry soft shells on the stove top.  We started with a dry-wet-dry process of dipping the crabs in flour, egg wash, and flour to bread them.  Once the oil reached the right temperature, we dropped the crabs in batches and cooked them.  The sauce is very straightforward ... just some heavy cream and some Lusty Monk Spicy Mustard.  We seasoned the sauce with some salt and it was done.  These crabs were served over fire-kissed collared greens, which were prepared by first cutting the greens in a julienne style.  A little olive oil was added to a cast iron skillet and when it was heated, the greens went in with a little garlic for a couple of minutes.  We plated the dish by putting some locally grown arugula and spinach on the dish, with the collared greens and then the crabs.  The sauce was then spooned over the crabs.  Like the first dish, this dish was very tasty. 

In the end, everyone had a fun time and Amy did a great job.  She made us feel welcomed, she opened her kitchen to us and showed us how to prepare two incredible meals with soft shell crabs.  If you are headed to the Outer Banks, I would strongly recommend that you consider spending an afternoon or an evening taking a cooking class at Outer Banks Epicurean.  If cooking classes are not your style, you should stop by to pick up some great wines, sea salt and other provisions that you will need to for cookouts on or near the beach.  I know that the next time that I am headed to the OBX, I'll be stopping by.


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