Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hatteras Blue Crab Soup

During our first full day of our vacation in the Outer Banks, I went crabbing for blue crabs with my beautiful wife, Clare, and her parents.  To fish for crab, you need a net (or a hook), some twine and some bait.  I went with Clare's father, Frank, to the local bait and tackle shop.  There, we  bought a couple crab traps, a lot of twine and chicken necks.   As it turns out, crabs like chicken necks.  Frank later returned to the shop to get another net and some more bait.  This time, he bought a box of squid.  In addition to chicken necks, crabs also like squid.   One thing that I learned is that a lot of fish also like squid, which results in a bit of competition between the crabs and the fish for the bait.  With the crab nets, twine and bait, we also got a tip on where we could find some blue crabs. 

The tip led us to a bulkhead in Avon along the Pamlico Sound.  We set up our nets and cast them out along the bulkhead.  During our fishing, I learned that the best places to catch crab are along the bulkheads or the pylons of a pier.  If you are casting off shore, focus on areas where there is seaweed or sea-grass.  In fact, our successes came from crabbing a little away from the bulkhead, near a patch of such grass.

North Carolina law limits a person to a catch of fifteen crabs per day and further limits the crabs you can keep to those that are five inches or wider from the tips of their shells.  We caught a lot of crabs, but most had to be returned because they were small than five inches.  By the end of the day, we had two, rather feisty crabs.  We then stopped by a local seafood market and bought a dozen, less feisty, live crabs.  Now we had enough to make something.  The only question was what to make.  

Having lived in the Chesapeake Bay region as long as I have, my first thought would be to smother the crabs in Old Bay seasoning and steam them until they turned bright red.  However, we did not have enough crabs for everyone who would be joining us for dinner.  In addition, I wanted to do something a little different.  So, I decided to make a soup, which would be somewhat challenging given the temperature was hovering around the mid-80s at the Outer Banks.  Under the circumstances, a cream-based soup did not seem like the way to go.  I ultimately decided to make a lighter soup, pairing the crab with some vegetables and a local spice mix -- called Hatteras Spice Mix -- that looked and smelled a lot like Old Bay.

This recipe is a Chef Bolek original.  It is something that I improvised based upon my experience of making crab soup in the past.  I added some new twists to this recipe, such as making a broth with the legs of the crabs and some herbs, such as rosemary, sage and thyme.  The herbs gave the broth a nice green color and a lot of flavor.  However, the star of the soup is the blue crab itself.  It takes a while to pick through twelve to fourteen crabs.  We were able to do it in about one and one hours, but it is worth it.  We ended up with more than a pound of fresh crab to use in the soup.  Of course, if you want to make this soup and do not want to endure the laborious process of picking crabs, then you can cheat by simply buying a pound of lump crab.  You can also use other types of crab meat, such as claw meat or backfin meat.   

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 10

12-14 live blue crabs
2 red skinned potatoes, finely diced
1/2 sweet onion, finely diced
1 green bell pepper, finely diced
1 tomato, seeded and finely diced
2 cloves of garlic, finely diced
4 bay leaves
6-8 sprigs of thyme
1 spring of rosemary
1 small bunch of sage
2 teaspoons of Hatteras Spice Mix (or Old Bay)
About 6 cups of water
Flat Leaf Parsley, chopped, for garnishing

1.  Steam the crabs.  Prepare a steam pot for the crabs.  You can use a regular pot, but you need some space between the bottom of the pot and the crabs.  Steam pots have a small tray that you can use.   Fill the pot with water just below the top of the tray and turn the heat to high.  When the water begins to steam, add the blue crabs and steam them for about eight to ten minutes.  The crabs are done when their shells have turned red.

2.  Pick out the crab meat.  Remove the pot from the heat and remove the crabs from the pot.  You do not want the crab meat to overcook.  Once the crabs have cooled down, begin picking the crabs for all of the meat.  This process will probably take at least an hour and a half, if not two hours. While you are picking through the crab, set aside the legs of the crab and other parts of the shell, which will be used for a stock.

3.  Remove all shells and cartilage.Once you have picked out all the meat, go through it a second time to ensure that you have all of the shells and cartilage removed.   Cover the crab meat and refrigerate it.

4.  Make a crab stock.  Take the crab shells, a spring of rosemary, a bunch of sage and a couple of sprigs of thyme and place them in a medium-sized pot.  Fill the pot with water and put the pot on high heat.   Add some salt and ground pepper.  Let the pot come to a boil and reduce to about half.  Remove the pot from the heat.

5.  Make the soup.  Add the butter to a different, much larger pot on medium heat.  Add the onion, green pepper and garlic and saute until translucent.  Then add the stock, straining it through a colander with cheese cloth so that only the liquid is added to the pot.  Add the tomatoes, 2 bay leaves, and leaves from four sprigs of thyme.  Add six cups of water.  Salt and pepper to taste. Let the soup simmer for about an hour.

6.  Boil potatoes.   In a separate pot, add the potatoes and fill with water.  Bring the potatoes and water to a boil and let boil for about five to ten minutes.  Add the potatoes and water to the other pot with the onions, green pepper, garlic and stock while it is simmering.  Let the soup continue to simmer for the hour, adding more water if the soup reduces too much. 

7.  Add the crab and finish the soup. About ten minutes before the soup has simmered for an hour, add the blue crab and stir well.   Let the soup continue to simmer for the remaining ten minutes. 


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