Food and Drink: Get cracking with crab: Crab straight from the ocean is a blissful indulgence, preparation is quite simple, and you won't have to shell out a fortune

A YEAR ago today, we flew to Scotland for a friend's wedding. Driving back to the airport afterwards, we stopped to stretch our legs in a small seaside town. Down by the harbour, steam furled out of the doorway of a lean-to, and a handwritten notice promised freshly cooked crab. Irresistible. Five minutes later, we were sitting on the sea wall, dangling our legs, opening the bag that contained the still- warm crab. Armed with little wooden forks, we set to work, excavating every nook and cranny of the shell. It was so absorbing that we forgot the time and nearly missed the plane.

That was crab at its best. A dab of mayonnaise, a slice or two of brown bread and butter and a towel to wipe sticky fingers would not have gone amiss, but there was no faulting the beast itself. If you live within easy reach of a conscientious fishmonger who boils them regularly, or who, better still, will supply you with live ones to cook at home, you will find truly fresh crab a blissfully reasonable luxury.

Cooking live crab is not difficult, but you do have to overcome the abhorrence at plunging it into boiling water. Remind yourself that it is an instant death, and get it over with quickly. The water should be very heavily salted - dissolve 6oz (170g) in every half-gallon (4 pints or 2 1/4 litres). Once the crab is in the boiling brine, clamp on the lid, bring back to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes if it weighs up to 1lb (450g), adding 10 minutes for every extra pound (450g) weight. The one disadvantage of this method is that the legs and claws tend to drop off - not a problem unless you want to serve the crab whole. However, you can get round this by killing the crab just before cooking. I can never bring myself to do it, but here's how, anyway.

Arm yourself with a small, sharp knife or screwdriver. Turn the crab on its back and locate the mouth. Quickly and firmly, pierce it through the mouth, driving through to the inside of the upper shell, just behind the eyes. Sounds grisly, but I'm assured it is humane.

Whether you've cooked your own or bought whole crab ready cooked, the next task is to dig out all the meat. With patience, you should get about 8oz (225g), mixed white and brown, from an average crab. Twist off the legs and claws if necessary, crack open and extract the sweet white flesh. Now turn the main body on its back and twist off the bony, pointed flap. Push the tip of a knife between the main shell and the bit to which the legs and claws were attached. Wiggle to loosen, then twist the blade to push it up and remove. Scrape out the brown meat in the main shell (quite the nicest bit).

Go back to the upper body section and snap off the mouth. Pull away the greyish, soft gills (the dead men's fingers) and discard. Split the body in half. Now you need all the patience you can muster. With a darning needle, skewer, or any thin pointed implement (my mother favoured a fine crochet hook), work your way through the cavities of the body, pulling out every last shred of white meat.

Alternatively, you can buy ready-prepared crab meat. It won't taste quite as good, it'll set you back a pretty penny, but it does save a lot of time. It's often sold vacuum packed, which preserves freshness, but if it is unpackaged, in or out of the shell, have a good sniff first. If the smell makes your stomach heave even vaguely, steer well clear. Make sure you get both dark and white meat - the dark is richer and it makes a world of difference in most recipes.

Don't bother with frozen crab, which is tasteless and stringy. Some people seem to like tinned crab, but I can't see the point, in that either, as it bears scant relation to the real McCoy. As per usual, fresh is definitely best.

Filo cigars filled with crab

This is a brilliant recipe, if I say so myself. The crisp filo pastry encloses delicious, oozy filling of crab, herbs and cream cheese. The 'cigars' can be prepared several hours in advance, and stored in the fridge, covered.

Makes around 18

Ingredients: 8oz (225g) mixed white and brown crab meat

4oz (110g) cream cheese

1/2 tbs chopped coriander

1tbs chopped parsley

1tbs lemon juice

6 sheets filo pastry

2oz (55g) butter, melted

salt and pepper

Preparation: Flake large pieces of crab meat if necessary. Beat the cream cheese with the herbs, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Mix in the crab meat.

Cut each sheet of filo pastry into 3 wide strips. To prevent drying out, cover with greaseproof paper, covered in turn with a tea towel wrung out in cold water. One at a time, take a strip of filo, brush with melted butter, then place a teaspoonful of the crab mixture at one end, shaping it into a neat sausage, but leaving a good 3/4 in (2cm) border. Roll it up to form a neat cylinder, flipping over the edges as you go, to prevent the filling falling out. Place on a greased baking sheet. Repeat until filling and filo are all used up. Brush the cigars with any remaining butter.

Bake at 200C/400F/gas 6 for 10 minutes until golden brown. Eat as soon as they are cool enough.

Crab cocktail

This may sound naff, but when made with fresh crab and good mayonnaise, spiked with a hint of tarragon, it is one of the most sublime starters. The quantities below could be stretched to around six if there was a substantial main course to follow, though I suspect that most people would prefer to major on the cocktail.

Serves 4-6

14-16oz (400-450g) crab meat (white and brown)

8fl oz (230ml) mayonnaise (preferably home-made)

1 shallot, very finely chopped

2tsp Dijon mustard

1tbs tomato puree

2tsp chopped fresh tarragon

tabasco sauce to taste

salt and pepper

4-6 leaves crisp lettuce

1tbs vinaigrette

lemon wedges to serve

brown bread and butter, or toast

Preparation: Flake any large bits of white crab. Mix the mayonnaise with the shallot, mustard, tomato puree, tarragon, a few shakes of tabasco, salt and pepper. Stir about three quarters into the crab. Taste, and add the rest if needed (the mixture should be very rich and quite sloppy) then balance seasoning.

Before serving, shred the lettuce leaves and toss with vinaigrette. Divide between individual plates and top with the crab mayonnaise. Serve with lemon wedges and brown bread and butter, or toast.

Gratin of crab on toast

Parmesan, sherry and nutmeg are all sympathetic to the powerful flavour of crab. Here they go into a thick sauce to make a rich topping for toasted bread. If you have any mixture left over, try chilling until firm, then rolling small balls of it in egg and breadcrumbs and deep-frying.

Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a starter

Ingredients: 1oz (30g) butter

1oz (30g) flour

1/2 pt (290ml) milk

2oz (55g) grated Gruyere

2oz (55g) freshly grated Parmesan

1lb (450g) crab meat (mixed white and brown)

3 spring onions, chopped

2tbs dry sherry

2tbs chopped parsley

4 large or 8 small slices good bread, crusts removed

salt, pepper and nutmeg

Preparation: Make a thick white sauce with the butter, flour and milk, and simmer gently for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent catching. Stir in the Gruyere and half the Parmesan, then add the crab, spring onions, sherry and parsley. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Toast the bread and spread each piece extremely thickly with the crab mixture, mounding it up in the centre. Arrange on a baking tray or shallow heat-proof dish, then sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan. If sauce and toast are still hot, just pop under the grill until patched with brown and sizzling. If not, bake at 180C/350F/gas 4 for 15 minutes or until browned. Eat immediately.

American crabcakes

This is a great way to stretch a meagre amount of crab around 4 people without seeming mean.

Serves 4 as a first course or light lunch

Ingredients: 8oz (225g) crab meat (brown and white)

1 egg

1tbs mayonnaise

2tsp Dijon mustard

1 1/2 tbs parsley, finely chopped

4 spring onions, finely chopped

2-3oz (55-85g) fine dry breadcrumbs

salt and pepper

oil

Preparation: Mix crab with all ingredients except crumbs and oil. Add enough crumbs to bind nicely. Divide into four and pat each quarter into a flat round cake, about 3/4 in (2cm) thick. Chill, covered, until needed. Either fry in a little oil until browned on both sides, or brush grill rack and crabcakes lightly with oil and grill until well browned on both sides. Serve with lemon wedges and a green salad.

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