Heaven in a shell: Crab meat is enjoying a much-deserved renaissance

The crustacean might be fiddly to prepare and less flashy than lobster, but it’s also sweeter, more delicately flavoured – and perfect for enjoying right now.

Consider the crab. Generally regarded as a poor cousin to the lobster, it rarely receives similar star billing on menus, nor will it ever be featured centre stage on a top-end plateau de fruits de mer or cookbook cover.

But, in truth, it should more correctly be perceived as John Lennon to Paul McCartney, or Keith Richards to Mick Jagger – much less pretty, far less accessible and a lot spikier, but you know which one you’d rather have a pint with. Harder to get in to, but much more rewarding when you do and a lot more likely to linger in the memory.

After a lifetime of doing my best to deplete the world’s crustacean population, including an awful lot of lobsters, it struck me that many of my most delicious moments have been when something involving a crab has been placed in front of me.

Sitting on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf with a breakfast of freshly-boiled crab, crusty sourdough bread and an ice-cold beer; smaller blue swimmer crabs stewed in a fiery-sweet tomato sauce in Western Australia; a cannelloni of creamy king crab leg at the southern tip of Patagonia; huge mud crabs in black bean sauce in Queensland; poached eggs served on a bed of the sweetest lump crab meat topped with a brandy-cream sauce at New Orleans’ famed Brennan’s restaurant; tempura of soft-shell crab in Hong Kong; Simon Hopkinson’s sublime crab in coconut milk. All this in addition to the dozens of the things I’ve put away in potted, mornayed, meunièred and gratinéed forms around the UK.

For decades, crab and, indeed, shellfish in general, took a bad rap with opinion toing and froing over its alleged high cholesterol content, but now the has-it-hasn’t-it? jury seems to have left its revolving door and the verdict is in. They do contain some dietary cholesterol, but very little saturated fat and are fine for healthy consumers to tuck in to. Crab is also particularly rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, with a 100g portion containing a third of our weekly recommended intake.

British diners seem to have heeded the call to get cracking. Marks & Spencer sells 650 tonnes of Orkney crab a year across all its products, with sales up 20 per cent on last year. At Selfridges, fresh-food buying manager Andrew Cavanna reports having decided to hand-pick all its Dorset crab meat on site in full view of customers in 2009, sales jumped 213 per cent on the previous year and have increased by 45 per cent each year since. And the team behind Burger and Lobster will soon be opening Steak and Crab in the capital’s West End.

“Lobster has always had the wow factor, but crab deserves a similar ­status,” says Hannah Macintyre, ­aquaculture and fisheries sorting ­technologist for M&S. Waitrose fish buyer Melissa Spiro says the chain’s teaming with Richard Corner and brother Neville’s Newlyn-based Seafood and Eat It brand in 2008 has resulted in a 27 per cent per year increase in its crab offerings.  

At the Palm in London, executive head chef Spencer Westcott goes through about 100 crabs a week, prefers males over females and is adamant a bigger beast means better flavour: “We serve jumbo lump-meat crab cakes with a chipotle mayonnaise and mango salsa. Our secret is to use 60 per cent crab and 40 per cent breadcrumbs, with no potato, bound in a dressing of flaked crab, mango, curry powder, powdered mustard, Worcester sauce and a seasoning mix of celery salt and paprika, which we rest for 30 minutes before topping with butter and baking in a 170C oven for five to 10 minutes.”

“I would choose crab over lobster any day, but people are lazy and that’s always been the problem with crabs,” says Ross Shonhan, owner of Soho’s Bone Daddies Ramen Bar, who opts for soft-shell beauties, which he coats in potato starch, deep-fries until crisp and serves with a chilli and ginger sauce.

Seafood guru Nathan Outlaw, of Outlaw’s at The Capital in Knightsbridge and two-starred Restaurant Nathan Outlaw in Rock, Cornwall, says seasonality is vital when choosing your crab – and, if boiling live – you must ensure the water is at least as salty as the ocean they came from. He recommends buying unpasteurised specimens, which he “puts to sleep” in the freezer for up to an hour before steaming for 15 minutes plus two minutes for every 100g.

“Right now , we’re getting cock crabs for another week or so, and spider crabs are starting to appear. If you cook any crab at the end of their season, the meat will be quite pappy and wet. When the males have gone, the smaller hen crabs come in with more and much better quality brown meat. The best time to eat crab is right now through June.”

In South Molton, Devon, Mark Dodson, owner-chef of Michelin-starred The Masons Arms, serves a salad of crab bound with crème fraîche and a pickled cucumber spaghetti. His top tip for buying live ones is to try to open their pincers – they should offer quite a lot of resistance – and always leave to cool in their cooking liquor.

“Lobster has a lot of bling, but is terribly expensive and can be very disappointing, while crab, which is sweeter and more delicate, is a lot of work,” he says. “There are no short cuts, but it’s well worth the extra effort.”

Theo Randall, chef/patron of Theo Randall at The InterContinental, uses 10kg of crab a day at his restaurant and stresses the bigger the crab, the more succulent its meat.He said: “Always hand-pick them, even though it takes one hour to do perfectly. Crab has a natural affinity with Italian cooking, making a perfect partner for linguini, risotto or ravioli.”

Jean-Philippe Bidart, head chef at The Millbrook Inn in South Pool and the newly opened Gara Rock, who is renowned for his crab bisque, says: “The secret to a really good bisque is plenty of cognac. The more you reduce your stock, the more intense the flavour.”

Just please don’t anyone even mention those pink-and-white abominations known as crabsticks.

Crab with rocket, basil and lemon olive oil By Rick Stein

Serves 4

350g fresh hand-picked white crab meat
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, preferably lemon olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
8 basil leaves, finely shredded
A handful of wild rocket leaves
Sea salt and cracked black pepper, to garnish

Put the crab meat in a bowl and gently stir in the lemon juice, olive oil, basil and some seasoning to taste.

Make a small, tall pile of the crab mixture on four plates, placing them slightly off centre. Put a small pile of rocket leaves alongside. Drizzle a little more olive oil over the rocket and around the outside edge of the plates. Sprinkle the olive oil with a little sea salt and cracked black pepper and serve.

Taken from ‘100 Fish and Seafood Recipes’ by Rick Stein (My Kitchen Table, £7.99).

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