Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Beluga Caviar

I contemplated writing a post about the Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Beluga Caviar that went a little something like this:

It sucked.

It more than sucked.

I hated it.

Everyone who tried it hated it.

I would not even wish this dish upon my worst enemy OR Celine Dion.

I am ripping Page 22 out of The French Laundry Cookbook because this tasted like ass. Or what I can imagine ass must taste like because let's face it, many of us say that something tastes like ass, yet, that's not really an honest comparison, because ew.

And, scene.

But as you can see, I'm going to write through the dry heaves that have begun yet again as I sit down to write this entry. I'm doing this for you, America. You can thank me later by never speaking of this dish again. It's gagging me almost as much as those softshell crabs.

You know what, it's a good thing I'm not posting this entry until today because... funny coincidence! I was in New York on business Sunday and Monday and got on the waiting list for Per Se, Thomas Keller's NY outpost. Unfortunately, I didn't get in, but I did chuckle (or rather choke back vomit) when I saw the first item on his Sunday night Chef's Tasting Menu was this very dish. On one hand, I thought it might be nice to taste the restaurant's version of it to see if it really is a masterpiece and I am a moron who couldn't make it properly... but on the other hand, I can imagine no greater embarrassment than puking on the fine patrons of Per Se.

With that appetizing thought, let's get cookin' -- WOO HOOO!!!!!!!

I picked up the oysters at BlackSalt and had the guys there shuck them for me so I didn't shuck my torso in an attempt to open an oyster. Believe me, I learned my lesson the hard way. Shucking oysters is not my strong suit. I have the emergency room bill to show for it. Here they are in their liquid:

Bleeeaaarrrrggghhh. I get the heebie-jeebies just looking at those things. I've tried them so many times in so many different iterations. My Uncle Don used to eat them raw out of the shell, and he gave me one when I was a kid. I almost puked it back up, but didn't want to be embarassed at our family picnic, so I choked it down and saved the crying for later. My grandmother used to make oyster pie, and I could only stomach the potatoes and pie crust because the oysters never seemed to break down when you chewed them and it made me ill. I tried them at a friend's restaurant at the beach, served in many gorgeous preparations. Gag. I even tried them in a Po' Boy at Uglesich's a few years ago and it was bad news. So, you won't be singing "Carol and oysters... sittin' in a tree" EVER.

So. Oysters. Yeah. I didn't need to use these guys until after I made the cauliflower panna cotta, so let's talk about that, even though the topic of cauliflower isn't my favorite, either. Am I the only one repulsed by the smell of this horrid, horrid vegetable? Man, I'm Nelly Negative today. Are you even still reading this? You can skip it if you want to. I won't be offended.

The first thing I did was cut the cauliflower florets (from a fresh head of cauliflower) into half-inch slices. I put them into a medium saucepan, added some butter and enough water to just barely cover them:

I brought the cauliflower/butter/water combo up to a simmer and let it cook for about a half hour, until most of the water was gone. I added the cream and simmered for another ten minutes:

When it was cooked and the liquid reduced, I put the saucepan's contents into the food processor and blended the cauliflower/cream mixture until it was completely smooth:

At this point, I had to open the kitchen windows because it was starting to smell like a bad Southwest Airlines flight I was on a few summers ago with a bunch of tourists who'd just eaten at Burger King before boarding the plane. I strained the cauliflower purée through a chinois and added a wee bit of salt for taste. Then, I soaked a sheet of gelatin in cold water for a few minutes to soften it. I squeezed out the excess water and stirred the gelatin into the warm cauliflower mixture. I then spooned the cauliflower mixture into individual serving glasses:

I put the glasses of gelatinous cauliflower into the refrigerator to chill for a few hours. I also contemplated stripping the walls and repainting them to get the cauliflower stink out of my house. Instead, I just burned the whole place down. Kidding.

Once the cauliflower was set, I made the oyster jelly. Mmmmmmmmm.... doesn't that sound delicious? Oyster jelly. Just what I'd always dreamed of making. Oyster jelly. The one goal in life I hoped to accomplish before I died. Making oyster jelly. The very words I want printed on my tombstone when I die: "She made a kickass oyster jelly."

You've already seen the photo of the oysters lounging around in their own juices, and I'm not going to post it again because I like you and do not want to torture you any more than you are being tortured by having to read this.

I removed the oysters from the liquid and gave them to a neighbor to eat. I strained the oyster liquid twice and put it into a small bowl. In a separate bowl, I put one third of a gelatin sheet into two teaspoons of water. I put the bowl over a small saucepan of hot water and stirred it to dissolve the gelatin. I removed the bowl from the heat and added the oyster liquid. I stirred some more to incorporate everything, then added some pepper:

I put this concoction into the refrigerator and stirred it every now and then until it was the consistency of salad oil. I put a spoonful of the jelly into each glass atop the cauliflower panna cotta:

I put the glasses back into the fridge until they were set and ready to serve. When it was go time, I added a small spoonful of caviar before serving my guests:

How'd it go over with the tasting crew? Let me break it down for you with my mad math skillz. This recipe made six servings. I had four friends over to taste. Four plus me equals five, which means we had an extra serving. When that has happened in the past, we fight over the extra plate, or try to split it diplomatically. That was not the case with this dish. No one finished their own serving, and we couldn't think of anyone in the neighborhood we hated enough to invite to try the 6th one to see if maybe our palates were off. I was happy to throw the extra one down the garbage disposal. It was bad. Really bad. I know the ingredients were good because none of us got sick or anything... we all agreed that this just tasted bad and we didn't like the flavor combinations or textures of any of it. I will confess that I didn't use beluga caviar and used sturgeon instead. But even sans caviar, this sucked... so I know it's not the poor caviar's fault.

I have to stop writing about this now because it's grossing me out to think about it any further. If you're still reading at this point, wow. You should get a medal or something.

Up Next: Fish & Chips -- Red Mullet with a Palette d'Ail Doux and garlic chips

Brands Used:
Oysters and caviar from BlackSalt
Cauliflower from Whole Foods
Organic Valley cream
365 organic butter

Music to Cook By: I made a playlist of all the artists I'm seeing at VirginFest this weekend -- The Police, Beastie Boys, Amy Winehouse, Cheap Trick, The Fratellis, Peter Bjorn & John, Paolo Nutini... the list goes on and on. Just need to keep Winehouse out of rehab until Saturday night!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Creamy Maine Lobster Broth AND "Macaroni & Cheese" -- Butter-Poached Maine Lobster with Creamy Lobster Broth and Mascarpone-Enriched Orzo

It's two... two... two dishes in one!

A few days ago, I did a quick inventory of my freezer and found the three lobster bodies left over from the Celine Dion lobster dish I did in May and thought I'd make some lobster bisque. Then, I remembered that The French Laundry Cookbook had a recipe for Creamy Maine Lobster Broth, so I thawed those suckers and set about making this dish.

As I was thumbing through the book, I realized the recipe made 2C of broth... the same amount needed for the "Macaroni & Cheese" dish. Fancy that. So, while I was disappointed in a way that I wouldn't be able to serve the broth on its own as a canapé (because even the photo of the broth in the book smells amazing - Keller really should consider scratch-n-sniff in the next edition), I was happy to knock out two dishes in one go.

Let's start with the Creamy Maine Lobster Broth. The first thing I did was put the thawed, quartered lobster bodies in a braising pan with some already-hot canola oil to sear them for about 3-4 minutes:

I added some chopped tomatoes, carrots and tarragon:

Then, I covered this mixture with water and brought it to a boil:

I reduced the heat and let it simmer for about an hour. I strained the stock into a large bowl, smashing the lobster bodies in the strainer to get all the juices out. I then strained the liquid again into a clean saucepan:

I simmered this liquid for a few hours until it had reduced to one cup of liquid:

I added the heavy cream, stirred, and reduced this mixture to two cups:

I strained this through a chinois into a container and stored it overnight in the refrigerator. I tasted a bit of it before doing so, and wow. Just wow. The flavor was so deep and intense. Just like the Cream of Walnut Soup, taking a sip of this made me close my eyes and smile like the giddy little nerd I am. Amazing. I can't wait to make this in the fall when it's cooler outside and the warmth in both flavor and temperature can more readily be appreciated. Man, I love tarragon (so, why don't you marry it), and even though it can be overpowering sometimes, it was perfect in this dish. Absolutely perfect.

With the Creamy Maine Lobster Broth completed and chilling overnight, it was time to move on to do the prep for "Macaroni & Cheese." I will admit that I am a macaroni and cheese aficionado. I love all kinds -- from the blue box to the homemade, to the haute cuisine. I don't discriminate. Every form of macaroni and cheese has its place. This one just earned a place in my ongoing repertoire for special occasions because it was delicious. And, it involved poaching lobster in BUTTER, which as you know is a favorite pasttime of mine.

Let's start with the lobster meat. I bought three lobsters at BlackSalt:

You know the drill here: boil water in one pot, put lobsters in another, pour boiling water (with a bit of vinegar in it) onto live lobsters, listen to their claws bang against the side of the pot in a fit of rage as you hide behind the door to the laundry room because they MIGHT KILL YOU SOMEHOW while you are cooking them, watch the bubbles rise out of their backs, then see that after 2 minutes they stop moving completely. For a complete description of the lobster cooking and meat removal process, read this post. Last time, I didn't have a photo of the poaching-in-butter part. I do this time, but it comes later in the write-up, so stay tuned. In the meantime, please enjoy this lovely photo of the lobster meat I ripped up my hands to get out of the sea-faring beasts:

I wrapped the plate of lobster meat in plastic wrap and put that in the fridge to chill overnight. I finished cleaning the bodies and put them in a plastic bag to store in the freezer. I checked The French Laundry Cookbook to make sure I'd done everything I needed to do that night so that I'd only have to do the finishing steps the next day, when I realized that I'd thrown away the coral with all the other lobster innards and gunk. Crap. I suck. Guess I won't be making the coral oil. I'll have to do it next time.

This afternoon, I took the lobster meat out of the refrigerator to slowly bring it to room temperature. I also put the lobster broth in a saucepan and brought it to a simmer. I reduced it from 2C to just a little over a cup -- more like a sauce consistency than a broth or a bisque. I removed it from the heat and made the orzo:

I used wholewheat orzo because I forgot to buy regular orzo at the grocery store, and my lovely neighbor Linda was kind enough to come to the rescue with orzo she had in her pantry. I tell ya -- between Holly and her tomatoes and brown sugar for the nectarine salad and Linda and the orzo, I have some awesome friends, don'tchathink?

After the orzo was cooked and rinsed in cold water, I added it to the lobster broth. Next, I stirred in a few tablespoons of mascarpone cheese and some salt:

Hello, lov-ah..... Is there anything better in this world than lobster broth with mascarpone? Sweet fancy Moses, I wish you could have been in my kitchen to smell (and taste!) this. If "creamy" had a smell, this would be it -- a little sweet, a little savory, smooth, silky, so not fattening at all, and delicious. When everything was combined, I removed it from the heat and got ready for the final step -- poaching the lobster. In butter. Oooooohhhhhh yyyeeeeaaaahhhh. (chick-chick, chick-a-chi-kaahh) Are you ready? Can you handle it?

Whew -- that was nice, wasn't it? Here, have a cigarette.

The lobster only took a few minutes to warm in the butter, and while it was warming, I got everything ready for plating. Here goes:

That's the orzo/lobster broth/mascarpone mixture with some fresh chives. I topped it with a piece of tail meat and a lobster claw:

And, for the final touch, a parmesan crisp on top:

(NOTE: you can see the makings of a parmesan crisp here)

I called the gang over for a tasting, and even though those crazy kids LOVED the soft-shell crabs (which I still can't comprehend), they hated this. Fine. More for the adults to eat, I say. It was really rich, but really good. The lobster meat was tender and the tail meat wasn't as tough as the last time I made lobster. The wholewheat orzo made it heartier than if I had used regular orzo, but that was fine with me. Overall, I think this one was a homerun. I honestly don't know how anything with lobster poached in butter could be bad, do you?

Up Next:
Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Beluga Caviar (featuring three main ingredients I loathe -- cauliflower, oysters and caviar; I can only guess how this one is going to turn out!)

Brands Used:
Fresh, live lobsters from BlackSalt
Produce from Safeway
Tarragon and chives from my garden
Organic Valley cream
365 canola oil
365 organic butter
Orzo from neighbor Linda's pantry (thank you!!)
Parmigiano-Reggiano from Whole Foods
Vermont Butter & Cheese mascarpone

Music to Cook By: Meiko; Are We There Yet. After years of overdosing on Jenny Lewis/Rilo Kiley, I've been off the strummy-strummy-la-la wagon for awhile... until I heard Meiko on a KCRW podcast this week. Her voice is similar to Beth Sorrentino's (Suddenly Tammy) with a little more smoke, rasp, and maturity (even though I think she's all of 19). She's young, and unproven, but I was impressed by her debut release. And, she's still so new she only has a MySpace page, which... ew, but I think she'll go places.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Nectarine Salad with Green Tomato Confiture and Hazelnut Sabayon

Now that I've gotten over the Chuck Palahniuk-like psychological trauma of the soft-shell crabs, I was overjoyed to make The French Laundry's Nectarine Salad. Nectarines are sweet. Nectarines are juicy. Nectarines do not have leg sockets that keep moving after you've cut their limbs off.

Yeah. Clearly, I still have issues.

But I must soldier on and not let this continue to get to me... which it has ALL WEEK. Seriously, I lost five pounds because every time I took a bite of something, all I could think about were those frickin' crabs and their postmortem twitchiness. Gah. I suck.

Must. Not. Dwell.

Raise your hand if you want me to write about nectarines!

I almost forgot how much I love nectarines. I've seen them in the grocery store and the farmers' market for the past few weeks, and finally bought some this week. I took a bite of one this morning and was transported back to the town where I grew up. My great-uncle owned a fruit orchard and my grandfather (his brother) helped out from time to time as a post-retirement, part-time job. My mom used to take my brother and me to the orchard to pick fruit to take home, or just stop in the orchard's little store to pick up whatever it was we needed that week. My brother and I thought we were cool because our uncle owned the place, so we got to go into the area where they boxed the fruit and loaded it onto the trucks for delivery. We even got to sit on the forklift while my grandfather drove it around, which is pretty awesome when you're a second-grade pipsqueak.

But what I remembered this morning as I ate that nectarine was being 7 years old on a warm summer afternoon, sitting on a tall stool at the end of the short, 10-foot assembly line with its wooden and metal rollers and thick, oiled straps that kept it moving along. The other workers would load the fruit onto the line to prepare it for packaging, and depending on the season my grandfather would sneak peaches, nectarines, apples, or plums off the line for us to eat. Because peaches were too fuzzy to eat without washing them first, I was always a fan of nectarines. I remember polishing a nectarine on my Pink Panther t-shirt and biting into it with gusto, juices running down my chin. I'd pull the neckline of my t-shirt up over my mouth and chin to wipe off the juice after each bite, and then have to spend the rest of the afternoon swatting away the bees that were naturally drawn to my juice-soaked clothing.

So when I saw nectarines this week at the local farmers' market, I knew I had to make this dish. Check 'em out:

As you'll see in the plating, I didn't do all the paper-thin slices The French Laundry Cookbook suggested. Instead, I just halved and pitted these lovely nectarines for plating so they'd retain their juiciness. And, let's face it, I'm lazy sometimes.

Let's get started. Here's the mise en place for the Green Tomato Confiture:

Can you believe those tomatoes? I KNOW! So green and gorgeous... reminded me of all the fried green tomato dishes I loved eating at Uglesich's and Upperline in New Orleans so many years ago. My neighbor, Holly, is the only one in the neighborhood who has been able to grow vegetables this summer without the deer, foxes or raccoons eating them. Everything I've planted (with the exception of herbs) disappeared within days of being placed in the soil. Holly picked these four green tomatoes for me, and they were the perfect size and shade of green.

The first thing I did for the confiture was use a citrus zester to create julienned strips of zest, which I boiled in water for about 30 seconds:

I strained the zest and then rinsed it in cold water:

Next, I held each of the tomatoes over the open stovetop flame until the skin blistered and popped. I've only done it this way once before, and I forgot how loud that popping skin can be. I held each tomato under cold running water and gently scrubbed off the skin. Here's a shot of naked green tomatoes:

I chopped them into a quarter-inch dice, which I put into a large saucepan. I added the citrus zest, the juice from the lemon, lime and orange, as well as some water, sherry vinegar, golden raisins, ginger, dried peaches, and brown sugar:

I brought this mixture to a simmer, covered it with a parchment lid, and simmered it for an hour and a half. Here's what it looked like when it was done cooking:

The tomatoes were translucent and the sauce was the consistency of maple syrup. The combination of all those ingredients produced the most wonderful smell, and this tasted far better than I thought it would. I was reluctant to taste it at first because the vinegar was the first note I smelled and it was a little overpowering, but then it was quickly followed by a brown sugar/lime smell, which won me over. Absolutely delicious!

I removed the confiture from the heat and got started on the dacquoise -- the little meringuey-type nut cookie thing that goes on top of the salad during plating. I usually don't like meringues, but this one looked good on paper, so I was anxious to try it.

I put the sliced, blanched almonds into the coffee grinder to chop them into a fine grind:

When they were ground, I put them into the food processor with the sugar and cornstarch:

Next, I used my trusty ole Kitchen Aid mixer to whip 3 egg whites until they held their shape. Then, I slowly added some sugar while the mixture continued to whip until it formed stiff peaks:

I folded in the dry ingredients and the batter was done:

Since I knew I wasn't doing the stacked nectarine slices in the 2" ring mold, I didn't do the circular dacquoise for the bottom layer of the presentation, just the piped ones for the top. I rearranged a bunch of things in my kitchen, pantry and mudroom a few weeks ago and misplaced my pastry bag and tips, so I had to use a ziploc bag with a corner cut out of it to pipe the batter onto a parchment-lined baking sheet:

I baked these for 30 minutes in a 300-degree oven and when they were done, I moved them to a cooling rack and covered them in powdered sugar. You'll see the final product in the plating photos to come.

The last step was the hazelnut sabayon. Using my Kitchen Aid mixer, I whipped about a half-cup of cream into medium peaks. In a separate KA mixing bowl, I whisked 2 large egg yolks with a third of a cup of sugar over a saucepan of hot water until the sugar was melted, then put the mixing bowl on the mixing stand and slowly added some hazelnut oil:

I whisked in a little bit of the whipped cream to thicken it, then folded in the rest. When it was combined, I started plating. First, the hazelnut sabayon:

Then, the nectarine halves:

I added a small spoonful of the confiture in each of the nectarine halves:

Finally, I topped it with a dacquoise:

From the smell of it and the first bite, we declared this dish a PlateLicker, much like the Salad du Printemps rhubarb dish I made in May. The nectarines were sweet and juicy, and the confiture was sweet and tangy and nicely complemented the rest of the dish. The sabayon was good, but I expected a little more from it. Taste-wise, for me it was the weakest part of the dish. The dacquoise was delicious -- I could eat 50 of these things. They get stuck in your molars much like regular meringues, but the nuttiness made these a little more hearty and substantive and wholly complementary of the necatrines. Overall, this dish wasn't bad, and I can't believe I'm going to say this, but I liked the rhubarb dish better than this one.

But don't ever ask me to eat plain old rhubarb like I eat nectarines, 'cause that won't happen. Truth be told, I probably wouldn't make this dish again because I would rather just stand over the kitchen sink with a few fresh nectarines, taking bite after bite, and letting the juice run down my chin. This time, though, I'll use a napkin instead of my shirt to clean up.

Up Next: Lobster-Palooza! I'm doing the Creamy Maine Lobster Broth AND the "Macaroni & Cheese" (Butter-poached Maine Lobster with Creamy Lobster Broth and Mascarpone-enriched Orzo).

Brands Used:
Citrus and ginger from Safeway
Tomatoes from "McClain Gardens" (thanks Holly!!)
Dried peaches, almonds and golden raisins from Whole Foods
Nectarines from Twin Springs Fruit Farm
Brown sugar also from my neighbor, Holly
Eggs from Smith Meadows Farms
Benissimo sherry vinegar
Rapunzel hazelnut oil
Organic Valley cream

Music to Cook By: Lizz Wright; Dreaming Wide Awake. I first heard Lizz Wright on KCRW when I was in LA this spring. Something about her voice hooked me from the moment her music started, and I listened to every word, every note, and every nuance in the song she was singing. I downloaded her albums later that day and her music became the soundtrack for my downtime in Santa Monica that week. I listened to Lizz when I was relaxing in the tub, having breakfast by the pool, or sitting on my deck overlooking the ocean watching the sunset (glass of wine in hand) before heading off to dinner. I'm not sure why, but I was feeling nostalgic for the west coast these past few days, so I've been listening to Lizz today. I think you'll like her.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Chesapeake Bay Soft-shell Crab "Sandwich"

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]

Brands Used:
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.