A cracking good dish: Mark Hix cooks with crab

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Break open a crab and, from tasty meat to broths, the possibilities are deliciously varied, says our chef.

I was brought up on crab. My dad's friends would bring them to our house in Dorset and my gran would cook them up and make sandwiches with the meat – the shells went straight in the bin. If I knew then what I know now, I could have taught gran a thing or two but, regardless, it was free food for the family and a treat for me.

Crabs are also good value compared to lobster, especially if you know how to use the shells. So when you buy crab, think two meals: one with the meat, and then another with the shells simmered up into a broth or a delicious smooth, creamy bisque – though that was definitely way out of my grandmother's repertoire. If you don't want to cook your own crab, most good fishmongers will sell you it cooked. You can make a broth straightaway, or freeze the shells and make a big batch at a later point.

Dressed crab

You can't beat freshly-cooked crab, accompanied by some good mayonnaise with brown bread and butter.

Perhaps because I was brought up by the seaside, I prefer to tackle the crab whole myself, armed with crackers, a finger bowl and a glass of white wine.

If you would rather the 'no bones and mess' approach, you can buy ready-picked white and brown meat, although it generally doesn't have quite the same taste unless your fishmonger does it for you. The brown meat can be a little dry and may need spicing up a bit – flavours of chilli or lemon can give it a welcome lift.

Preparing your crab

To get the meat out of the crab, twist the legs and claws off, then crack them open andf remove the white meat with a lobster pick or teaspoon. Now turn the main body on its back and twist off the pointed flap. Push the tip of a table knife between the main shell and the bit to which the legs were attached and twist the blade to separate the two; then push the body up and remove from the outer shell. Scoop out the brown meat in the well and put to one side.

On the other part of the body, remove the dead man's fingers (these are the feather-like, grey gills attached to the body) and discard. Split the body in half with a heavy knife and then cut each side in half again. Now you need to be patient and pick out the white meat from the little cavities in the body, again using a lobster pick or a teaspoon.

Go through the white and brown meat separately to make sure there are no residual bits of shell.

If you plan to serve the crab meat out of the shell, you should allow 100g per person as a starter or 150g per person as a main course. The amount of the brown meat in a crab can be unpredictable, so you could buy some more ready-picked to be on the safe side.

Grilled courgettes with crab and chilli

Serves 4

British-grown courgettes are starting to hit the market now and I always find you get the most flavour out of them if they are sliced and grilled. It works especially well when you combine them with the delicate flavour of crab and a little kick of chilli.

2 courgettes, cut lengthways into ½cm slices
A little vegetable or corn oil for brushing
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
120-150g cooked white crab meat

For the dressing

1 red chilli, finely chopped
2-3tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
The juice of half a lemon

Heat a ribbed griddle pan on a medium heat, lightly brush it with oil and cook the courgettes for about 2-3 minutes on each side until tender. Meanwhile, mix all of the ingredients for the dressing and season.

To serve, the courgettes should be just warm; arrange them on serving plates then spoon the crab on top and the dressing over and around all of it.

Crab and asparagus broth

Serves 4-6

I hate throwing things away and the thought of a potential meal going in the bin is more than a little depressing. Turning your crab shells into a broth is a great way tof prevent such a sorry event, and makes for an excellent dish.

1tbsp vegetable or corn oil
Shells from one or two crabs, broken into pieces
1 small onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 sticks of celery, roughly chopped
4 cloves of garlic, halved
1 bay leaf
A couple of sprigs of thyme
1tsp fennel seeds
1tsp black peppercorns
1tbsp tomato purée
2½ litres fish stock (or a few stock cubes)
150ml white wine
150-200g asparagus, woody ends removed
100-120g cooked white crab meat

Heat the oil in a large heavy-based saucepan and cook the crab shells on a high heat for 3-4 minutes, colouring them lightly. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the crab and asparagus, bring to the boil and simmer gently for an hour, skimming occasionally. Strain the contents through a fine-meshed sieve into another clean saucepan.

Check the taste, and if it seems under-powered, simmer to reduce – gradually the flavour will intensify. Season to taste.

Meanwhile, cook the asparagus in boiling salted water for 2-4 minutes, depending on size, then drain and leave to cool.

To serve, slice the stems of the asparagus on the angle and leave the tips whole. Divide the asparagus and crabmeat between your soup bowls and ladle the hot broth on top.

Crab and sea vegetable fritters

Serves 4

Delicate, slightly salty seashore vegetables like sea spinach, sea purslane, sea aster and samphire make great little fritters. Combined with crab they work as a lovely dinner-party starter or a snack at a drinks party.

Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying
70-80g seashore vegetables, trimmed and blanched for 30 seconds or so
150g freshly-picked white crab meat
70g self-raising flour
Enough water to make a light batter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tbsp good-quality mayonnaise
2tbsp cooked brown crab meat

Stir the mayonnaise and brown crab meat together and season. Next, mix the white crab and sea vegetables – if you are using sea spinach you may need to cut it down a bit together in a bowl, ensuring you don't break down the crab too much, thenf stir in the flour and enough water to make a thickish batter; season.

Preheat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large, thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep-fat fryer.

Drop dessertspoonfuls of the crab and sea-vegetable mixture into the hot fat and stir occasionally with a slotted spoon for a couple of minutes, until nicely coloured and crisp; drain on kitchen paper.

Scatter with some salt and serve either with the crab mayonnaise, or with the mayonnaise on the side of the plate.

Tomatoes and crab on toast

Serves 4

A slice of hot buttered toast with juicy, ripe tomatoes is a pleasurable and simple snack – transform it into a thing of luxury by topping it with freshly-picked crab meat.

4 slices of white or brown bread
4 large ripe tomatoes
1tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp of cooked brown crab meat
1 tbsp chives
4-5 tbsp cooked white crab meat

Cut the tomatoes into slices ½cm thick, and put to one side. Toast the bread, cut about 1cm thick, and spoon over a little olive oil. Arrange the slices of tomato on each piece of toast, then spoon the brown crab down the centre and spoon the white on top. Season the crab lightly, spoon over a little more oil and scatter with the chopped chives.

Join Mark Hix, Mat Follas and friends for a crab feast at the Marine Theatre, Lyme Regis as part of the Lyme Regis Crab Festival on Wednesday 12 June; 3-course feast for £20. To book, call the box office on 01297 442138

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