I know that in many of my posts I have referred to my childhood as an inspiration for the idea or recipe (like when I made chutney or in reference to my mamma’s lasagne), but food to me is all about nostalgia and I personally have been so influenced by my childhood experiences of food. Most of my strongest food memories have involved seafood. One of the very earliest memories I have is winkling on the Dorset coast. My entire family armed with buckets trawling the rock pools for periwinkles, before boiling them up and using a pin to tease the little mantles out and dipping them in vinegar.
Another would be my dad ordering the seafood platter every single time we went to France and letting us try oysters, clams, mussels, prawns and whatever else was piled high on his plat de la mer.
Yet another would be crabbing on a pier in Cornwall with my brother and sister for hours and hours, legs dangling over the edge with our baited string hanging below, pulling up crab after crab (teeny of course!).
But perhaps my fondest childhood foodie (can you be a foodie child) memory would be buying, cooking and dressing crabs with my dad. Living in Southeast London (part of the Lewisham massive) it was an easy drive to Billingsgate and I can remember creeping out of bed at 5am, just me and my dad, to go to the fish market in order to buy some crustacea. We would buy a couple of crabs, and be home by 7am to spend the day cooking, cracking and extracting. Armed with nutcrackers and some long pointy implements, me and my dad would put some newspaper down and get to work. This was my childhood.
When my dad recently returned from almost 4 years living in Uganda (working for Cherish Uganda) where seafood is not exactly easy to get hold of, he was really eager to get his hands on some shellfish. He thought lobster, but I instantly thought crab. The idea of sitting with my dad, newspaper down, nutcrackers in hand, was too precious to pass up. We went down to Sea Haze (on the seafront) and, after taking advice from the very helpful proprietor, picked up a cock and a hen – alive and kicking of course.
Neil, at Sea Haze, had said that he thought the most humane way to cook a crab was to put the crabs into cold water and then very very slowly heat the water (taking at least 15 minutes to get to boiling point). Apparently this way the crab fall asleep as the waters heats up and is completely out of it for the gruesome part. We figured we’d give this a go despite the fact that my dad usually drops them into boiling water.
The only problem with this approach is that the crabs are bloody active in the water before they fall asleep. The huge cock crab kept kicking the lid off and using the hen to boost himself out of the pan. Yikes. Being rather a dramatic young lady, this had me squealing, leaping around the kitchen and hollering to my dad to “come quickly, the crab’s escaping”. Of course, ever the pragmatist, my dad just put a heavy chopping board on top of the pan and that was the end of that. Clever clogs.
When we finally had the two cooked crabs, I took the hen and my dad took the cock and we got down to the cracking and hammering. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of getting the meat out of the crab, but one important thing to remember is that you must find and throw away the stomach sack and all ten of the dead man’s fingers. They are yucky and not to be eaten.
Then you can get to the fun part. Brown meat in the shell and white meat from the crabs and legs. Keep the meat in separate bowls. Use a nutcracker, hammer or heavy rolling-pin to crack open the legs and something long and thin to extract the meat (we used the ends of tea spoons).
You’ll end up with quite a lot of meat and massives of empty shells (which can be used to make stock).
In my opinion, the best possible vehicle for crab meat is the most simple dish possible, so I decided to do a brilliantly quick (well once you’ve got your crab meat) and easy crab linguine.
Serves 4 for a main
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- The white and brown undressed crab meat of 1 crab (or most of the meat from 2 if you’re greedy like us)
- extra virgin olive oil
- juice and zest of 1 lemon
- 400g linguine
- handful fresh parsley, chopped
- handful watercress leaves, roughly torn
Put a large pan of water on to boil for the pasta. In a large pestle and mortar pound the peeled garlic cloves with the salt until you have smooth paste. Add the crab meat and break it up gently with a fork before pouring in a few glugs of the olive oil. Stir in the zest and juice of the lemon and then stir well until mixed.
Cook and then drain your pasta and return to the pan. Immediately pour over the crab mixture and toss, then throw in the parsley and the torn watercress leaves. Toss again and serve with chilled white wine.