Hi there. Can you hang on a sec? Thanks. I'll be right back.
::::: takes a long sip from her glass of wine :::::
Whew. Much better.
It was either a glass of wine or a trip to the mental ward. Why, you ask? Because I just cut the faces off half a dozen soft-shell crabs. Cut their faces off. With scissors. WHILE THEY WERE STILL ALIVE. Do you want to know what happens when you cut their faces off? Do you? DO YOU!!?! Well, read on then. 'Cause I'll tell you. It's not pretty folks. Not at all.
But first, let's talk about the dish as a whole, look at the other elements that went into it, and how I prepared it. As a resident Marylander, I was pleased to do a dish that involved local fare from the Chesapeake. Unfortunately, this has been a bad year for soft-shell crabs. The population is sparse, which means they're expensive. Restaurants aren't really serving them, and most folks are taking this summer off in terms of eating them. Not me. Go figure, I decided to make this dish when soft-shells are at their most expensive in twenty years. I am so awesome. Soft-shell crab sandwiches are a local favorite here in the DC/Baltimore area. They're quite simple -- softshell crab body in between two slices of white bread or toast. Maybe a squirt of lemon. Perhaps a dash or two of hot sauce. Some tartar sauce, if you're feeling lucky. Fries and coleslaw on the side.
People either love 'em or hate 'em. Me? I've always hated 'em. Had a bad experience with them once, was sick for two days, and haven't been able to try them since. Or look at them. Or touch them. Or think about them without my salivary glands acting up (and not in the good way, if you catch my drift).
But, I stepped up and made the big sacrifice for you people, so I hope you'll appreciate it. Plus, I trusted in the almighty Thomas Keller not to steer me wrong, and hoped against hope that this preparation might just change my mind about these little suckers. Last night, I read the recipe many, many times to make sure I had all the ingredients on-hand, and was ready for the prep this afternoon.
This morning, I called a bunch of places to see who carried live soft-shells, and only one place had them -- BlackSalt Fish Market and Restaurant on MacArthur Boulevard. The fantastic fishmonger, Scott Weinstein, hooked me up with six soft-shells. They were fresh, alive, and kicking. Thanks, Scott!
I got home from the fish market, and after doing some work got started on this dish in time for the neighbors to enjoy it before they left for their Saturday night plans.
First up? The sauce. Here's the mise en place:
I mixed the hard-boiled egg yolks, cornichon juice, chicken stock, and dijon mustard in the blender. Then, I slowly added the canola oil. When it was done, I transferred it to a bowl, then added the minced cornichons:
Next, I added the minced shallot, minced flat-leaf parsley, and the brunoise you see in the photo above. I stirred it, and here's the final product:
The sauce on its own was delicious, and I'd make this again instead of tartar sauce or tzatziki next time I make crabcakes. But I digress.
The next item to prep was the tomato confit. I've made this a few times before, so you can read the directions here. But, for your viewing pleasure, here are the before and after photos of the confit:
While the tomatoes were in the oven, I deep fried the capers. I did this once before, too, and you can read about it here. But because I am a giving person, I give you... this photo of the capers boiling in oil:
It's hard to get a photo of those little things once they're done, so you'll see them in the final plating. When I get a new camera (happy birthday to ME!), it'll be easier to shoot things like fried capers and have them come out looking like what they're supposed to look like, so you'll just have to wait a month or so.
Sauce = check. Tomato confit = check. Capers = check. I don't have any photos of the brioche crouton process, because you've seen brioche quite a bit these past few posts, and once again, I bought it at the local co-op and toasted it myself. You'll see it in the final plating.
So let's get to the main attraction of this dish: the soft-shell crabs. There were six of them. If you'll recall when I made lobster in May, I used Canadian lobster and decided to name them all Celine, because what better Canadian to suffer the wrath of being steeped in boiling water than Ms. Dion?
I was coming up with all sorts of names for these crabs when I realized that the prep involved holding a live soft-shell crab, cutting its face off, then tearing off its legs. I wondered, are there six people I would wish this upon? And, are there six people from the Chesapeake Bay region I would wish this upon? And that answer was no. I called in my crack Crab-Naming Squad (previously known as my "lobster-naming strategy team") and asked: Is there a Group of Six known for having their faces hacked up or their legs torn off? After ZERO response to my urgent plea, I was thinking about naming them Greg, Peter, Bobby, Marcia, Jan and Cindy, when once again, the fabulous Catherine came to the rescue.
Allow me to introduce Jackie, Marlon, Randy, Tito, Jermaine, and Michael!
It was between the Jackson family and the Osmond family, but the Osmonds have better plastic surgeons so the whole face-hacking angle fell flat. But back to the food!
Naming the crabs and shooting the blurry video was fun and all, but then it came time to actually prepare them. This is where the fun ends, my friends. I thought I was ready for this. I really thought this wouldn't be a problem. I read and re-read the instructions in The French Laundry Cookbook: "Using a pair of scissors, cut off the crabs' faces and discard. Cut off the two large claws where they meet the body and reserve. Cut off and discard the smaller legs, and trim the sides of the body for a smooth edge." Sounds easy, right? It was hell.
With my left hand, I picked up one of the crabs from the platter and held him from behind. In my right hand, I held the scissors. As I got the scissors close to the crab's face, it started twitching and writhing, and I couldn't do it. I don't know if you've ever held or touched a soft-shell crab before, but instead of a skeletal underbelly and a hard shell on top, the underbelly is not very hard, and felt as thin as a shrimp shell. The top shell feels like thin leather, or perhaps fish skin -- probably the same thickness/texture as halibut. So, when the crab started moving around, I could feel his insides moving, too.
I put him back on the platter and paced my tiny, tiny kitchen trying to talk myself off the ledge. I saw a bottle of Ketel One on my wine table and thought maybe a shot of liquid courage might help, but I didn't do it. Instead, I grabbed a pair of tongs and used those to pick up the crab. I opened the scissors and let out a "aaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii'msosorry" as I cut its face off. Things started to ooze out of the front of his head, and I just repeated a mantra of "thisisgross-thisisgross-thisisgross-AAAAACCCCCKKKKK" as I cut off the large claws, then removed the remaining legs. I did this for each crab to get all the cutting overwith at once.
Here's a photo of the crab bodies and claws in a colander, about to be rinsed under cold water:
What you can't tell from this photo is that even though I cut off their faces, claws and legs, THEY WERE STILL TWITCHING.
I'm totally squicking myself out reliving this as I type. ACK! THIS WAS THE WORST! I WILL NEVER MAKE THIS AGAIN. EVER!
Before rinsing them, I removed their aprons and lungs, and cleared out all the other "matter" (which is just a fancy word for "all the yellow and gelatinous crap beneath the apron"). I washed the bodies and claws, patted them dry with paper towels, seasoned with salt and pepper, dredged them in a little bit of flour, and cooked them in a large sautée pan in clarified butter:
People started arriving at this point, so I drained the crabs on paper towels and started plating:
Oh, WHOOPS! That's not the final dish. That's a bag full of CRAB FACES and LEGS that I HAD TO CUT OFF MYSELF. I needed to share this lovely sight with you so that I might be able to transfer the trauma to you and away from me. Ugh.... my shoulder blades are twitching.
Okay. Let's pull ourselves together here. Here's the final plating:
Gorgeous, yes? I put a spoonful of sauce on the plate, topped it with a brioche crouton, then a crab body, then a piece of tomato confit, followed by two crab claws, then topped with baby arugula and the deep-fried capers. Everything smelled and looked great. But the true test was in the taste. And, as reluctantly as I will admit, it was damn good.
When I told my neighbors earlier in the week what I'd be serving today, I had very few takers. Usually, there are four adults and three kids that taste most dishes I make as part of this project, but only one of the four adults likes soft-shell crabs. I found out my neighbor's husband loves soft-shells, so he was required to attend. The rest of us just figured we'd try it and see how it went. We thought the three kids would haaaaaaaaate it. Boy were we wrong. Two out of three loved the dish and nearly cleaned their plates:
Here's "C" mid-repast --
Here's "G" with a mouthful of crab goodness --
And, here's "M" (at least she liked the brioche and the sauce) --
M's mom and I cut apart the crab and ate the meat out of it, along with everything else. G & C took big bites of everything and loved it all. G & C's mom tasted bits of theirs, but ended up being as grossed out as I am about the whole notion of soft-shell crabs. M's dad and G & C's dad? Cleaned their plates. M's dad is a major fan of the traditional soft-shell crab sandwich fan and said he really liked this preparation. High praise, indeed!
Was it good? Absolutely. Would I make this again? Absolutely not.
Up Next: Nectarine Salad with Green Tomato Confiture and Hazelnut Sabayon
[because nectarines DON'T TWITCH WHEN YOU CUT THEM]
Soft-shell crabs from BlackSalt
Eggs from Smith Meadows Farms
Roland brand Cornichons
365 canola oil
Clarified butter by me
Thyme for the tomato confit from my garden
All produce from Safeway
Brioche from the TPSS Co-op
Music to Cook By: Johnny Cash; The Sun Years. It was the perfect accompaniment to making this dish. I can't explain why. It just was. I love me some Johnny Cash.
Saturday, July 14, 2007
Hi there. Can you hang on a sec? Thanks. I'll be right back.