Friday, July 15, 2016

Steamed Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs

H.L. Mencken once remarked, "there is a saying in Baltimore that crabs may be prepared in fifty ways and that all of them are good."  That saying may very well be true; but there is one preparation that almost all Marylanders will agree is the best: steamed with Old Bay.  And, in order to achieve perfection, one must use blue crabs from the Chesapeake Bay.

My introduction to Chesapeake Bay blue crabs takes me back more than twenty years, when I worked as a steam cook at a local crab house.  I packed pots full of feisty blue crabs, alternating between crabs and Old Bay, and watching the pots dutifully as those green and blue crabs turned to the emblematic reddish-orange.  It was a part-time job, which I worked in the evenings and on weekends during the summer to earn money during college.  The crab house had steam pots on two levels and I had to carry pots up and down stairs.  It was hard work; and, for years, I swore that I hated it.  But, as time goes by, I look back fondly to my time in that kitchen for two reasons.  First, I made a connection with the other cooks, all of whom were from Cameroon and were working that job as an evening/weekend job while they were getting their masters degrees in engineering. Second, that was where my love of cooking and eating blue crabs began.

The blue crab -- also known as Callinectes Sapidus -- is truly a remarkable creature. That Latin name translates as "beautiful savory swimmer," but that hardly describes this crustacean, let alone its importance to the economy and the culture around the Chesapeake Bay.  Since at least the 1600s, if not long before, native Americans, English Colonists and others relied upon the blue crab as an important source of food.  The love for the sweet taste of blue crab meat led to overfishing, stressing populations throughout the bay.  Other environmental and man-made factors further pushed numbers of blue crabs further downward.  However, for nearly 100 years, local and state governments in the Chesapeake region have worked very hard to protect and grow the species, with mixed success. 

These conservation efforts have led to various restrictions when it comes to the commercial and recreational crabbing.  Those restrictions have, in turn, led to less crabs in restaurants and in stores, as well as higher prices.  Personally, I am willing to accept those consequences if it means that this important animal and resource will be around for future generations to enjoy. 

With all of this said, I only have steamed blue crabs every year or two years.   The crab feast usually takes place at a restaurant, which usually carries a very hefty tab at the end of the meal.  Recently, I went "back to my roots" and steamed some crabs.  It was a feast enjoyed by not only myself, but my beautiful Angel and her parents.

There was one obvious question: how to steam the crabs? Back at that crab house, steam pots were prepped using only water.  Once they were blazing hot, crabs were added, one layer at a time.  With each layer of crabs, a healthy amount of Old Bay was sprinkled over the crabs.  Then the next layer of crabs were added to the pot, followed by more Old Bay, and so on and so on.   

Despite having steamed hundreds of crab pots in my time, I still checked the Internet to see how others steamed their blue crabs.  I was quite surprised by what I found.  There were many recipes for "Chesapeake Bay" blue crabs that called for steaming the crustaceans in a mix of water and vinegar or beer and vinegar.  I could see the use of beer (after all, it is used in many other seafood preparations, such as spiced shrimp), but vinegar? I tried to find some explanation for why vinegar was used to steam crab, I could not find any.  To make matters worse, some recipes called for apple cider vinegar, while others called for white distilled vinegar or, in one case, red wine vinegar.  While I  gave a passing thought to using white distilled vinegar, I ultimately decided to forego the ingredient.

As for the use of beer, there was no question that it would go into the steam pot.  The only question was which beer to use.  Many use a basic brew -- like Budweiser (or, if you are from Baltimore, Natural Bohemian a/k/a Natty Bo).  I wanted to use a local brew.  I also decided to follow the chef's rule when it came to using alcohol in recipes: namely, use something you would serve with the dish or that you would drink.  I am not a big fan of Budweiser or Natty Bo.  That left me perusing the alteratives at a local beverage store, I came across Flying Dog's Dead Rising, a summer ale brewed with, of all things, Old Bay.  I thought that would be a good beer to use for the steaming of blue crabs.  After all, the crabs will be steamed with Old Bay, so why not use a beer that was brewed with the spice mixture?

Having Old Bay in the beer and on the crabs was not a concern for me.  The reason goes back to what I learned at while cooking at that crab house. Old Bay has a lot of salt in it, and, the crab house managers wanted a lot of Old Bay on the steamed crabs because it made people buy more beer. When I steam crabs, I do so for myself, my friends and my family.  I am not interested in trying to sell beer to them or, for that matter, encouraging them to drink more beer.  More importantly, while I like the taste of Old Bay, I love the taste of blue crab meat more.  I want to be able to taste the crab first, with a little Old Bay on the background.  Therefore, as I pack a crab pot, I use a fair amount of Old Bay, covering the carapace of the crabs.  However, I make sure that the crabs are not caked with the stuff.  Once the crabs are finished steaming, I also sprinkle a little more Old Bay on the right before they are served.

Finally, a couple of notes about packing steam pots.  First, it is important to have a pair of thick rubber gloves or a long set of tongs.  You do not want to have your fingers caught in the crab's claws or, worse, to be bitten by a crab.  This leads to my next point: never pick up a crab by its front.  As you can see, that is just asking for trouble, especially if you are not using gloves or your tongs are not long enough.  Instead, you should always try to grab the crab from behind,  While you could try grabbing the crab from the abdominal segment 2, there is a chance the crab can get you depending on how far in you grab it. I find the best spot to grab a crab is just above its coxa, which is shown in the diagram above.  If you grab the crab on its body above the coxa and dangle it, the crab is not going to be able to grab you.

Second, and finally, while it is good to pack a fair amount of crabs into the steam pot, it is important not to over-pack the pots.  You want steam to get in between the crabs so that they cook evenly and completely.  Once they are in and ready, close the pot and leave it alone for about 20 to 25 minutes.  Once they have their bright reddish-orange color, they are ready to be eaten!

Serves Many

4 dozen medium blue crabs
Old Bay
2 bottles of beer
3 cups of water

1.  Prepare the steam pot.  Add the beer and water (or, if you must, vinegar) to the steam pot (which is a pot that has a steam tray, i.e., a tray elevated from the bottom of the pot).  Cover the pot and heat it on high heat until steam starts coming out of the edges of the cover.

2.  Pack the pot.  Working as quickly as you can under the circumstances, add the crabs to the pot.  Once you have a layer of crabs, add some Old Bay to the crabs.  Then add the next layer of crabs and then some more Old Bay.  Keep adding crabs and Old Bay until the pot is mostly full, making sure that you do not overpack the pot.

3.  Steam the crabs.  Cover the pot and allow the crabs to steam for about 20 minutes.  Once the crabs are the bright reddish-orange color, then they should be removed from the pot and served immediately.


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