another crabby christmas

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Hope you had a happy Christmas, either celebrating or not celebrating.  We had our usual feast of crab.  Just crab.  Nothing else.  Simple, no?  We usually get enough for leftovers — sometimes I make traditional crab soup.  This year, I’m making California rolls from the crab, tobiko fish eggs, and avocado. It’s appropriate, since we had to buy California crabs this year due to the Oregon crab season’s delay.  Not opening ’til December 30.  Argh!

Retrogrouch is from Baltimore, where they eat crabs whole and hot, so we’ve learned instruct Oregon fishmongers not to clean our crabs or (egads) put them on ice, and then I quickly re-steam them with Old Bay and beer.  Boris the cat helps by eating the mustard, the yellowy innards that are harder to eat on a Dungeness crab than on a Maryland Blue crab.  Yes, he sits at the table.  No, he isn’t allowed to do this at any other time.

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We finished off the evening, or I should say *I* finished off the evening, with the rest of my special Tyrkisk peber (a salty, spicy black licorice candy from Finland) cocoa gingerbread cookies.  They are the ugly ones above. And a serving of eggnog bread pudding as a nightcap.

I suppose I should really cook the crabs properly by purchasing them live, but they’d have to hang out for a day and I’m not sure I need that hassle.  Christmas is a day of indulgence for me: no errands, no real cooking, no email, nothing but being present in the moment.  Very hard to do.  I flirt with the idea, occasionally, of following the Jewish Shabbat traditions where one just checks out for a day of rest each week from sundown to sundown, Friday to Saturday, to enjoy the company of one’s family and friends.  Unfortunately, this is difficult to manage when one’s family and friends are connected mainly by internet. :) Not to mention, of course, you wouldn’t see an observant Jew eating crab to celebrate Christmas.  But dunno. Maybe this idea is worth pursuing in the new year.  I need a little more peace.  Don’t we all?

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culinaria eugenius in baltimore, part II: crabby

Lest you think it was all Jewish deli on those fine Balimorean shores, I had to post some of our shellfish eatin’.  I don’t think the word “gorge” is too strong to describe what happened in Baltimore last weekend.  In fact (vegetarians and allergists avert your eyes), it was a downright crustacean demolition derby.

We started off the weekend at G&M Restaurant in Linthicum, the former hole-in-the-wall gone Big City with an expansion and spiffing up in the ten years we’ve been away from it. We’re not so sure we like the spiffing, but they still have crabcakes as big as a salad plate that are made up of lump crabmeat and a binding batter.  No filler.  None.  As in a softball of large chunks of crab with a bit of eggy coating, served simply with lemon.  One is enough, and don’t bother with the anemic sides or stale rolls.

Instead, focus on the seafood.  Why just eat crabcakes, when you can also have Maryland crab soup and a shrimp boil?

We shared a bowl of (rather undistinguished) soup that seemed light on the crab to me, more of a tomato soup with frozen peas, corn, and limas than anything else, slopped over the side of the bowl.  But the shrimp were good — slightly dusted with Old Bay seasoning from the boil, large and delicious.

But clearly, we were holding back for the big event.  For my father-in-law’s 80th birthday party, a gala family event, we ordered the finest crab preparation in the world, Maryland blue crabs steamed with Old Bay.

Soooo good.  See that mud?  It’s not mud. It’s Old Bay.  To eat the crabs, you crack them open and eat the sweet, soft flesh while licking the Old Bay off your fingers.  No need for butter or tartar sauce or anything like that.  It’s just you and the spicy, salty sea.  Even with the questionable origins of the crabs (the Chesapeake has been polluted and the crabs usually come from farther south, and you know what’s going on with southern waters right now), I have to say that blue crabs beat the pants off our western dungeness crabs.  The meat is almost silky, and the large crabs don’t result in the stringy, bland meat that dungeness sometimes do.  And no one in Maryland insists on chilling (!) the crabs like we do here.

The boys brought home a sampler of coddies, the little seafood cakes that are another specialty of Baltimore, and I sliced up a dozen deli pickles (green, “well-done,” and green tomato).  My sister-in-law made a creamy dilled potato salad that I’m dying to try out for summer barbecues.  It was meant to go with the crabs, but we were so crustacean-drunk we didn’t eat much.  All the better — we could eat it for a couple of days for lunch and snacks.  Once I calibrate the proportions, I’ll post a recipe, but the basic ingredients were potatoes, fresh dill, red onion, cucumber, Greek yogurt and mayonnaise.  Yum.  And as drunk as we were on Old Bay, we topped it all off with springy, fruity rosé wine from California and Oregon (and crummy beer, pictured below).

My contributions to this entire feast were minimal, I’m afraid.  I’ve been so busy that I’m just not able to do much else other than work, and I took the opportunity of our trip to spend a wonderfully exhausting day at the Barnes archive at University of Maryland.  I did bring some hazelnuts and Brooks prunes to represent our ‘hood, and made Linda Ziedrich’s pickled prunes, but other than that, I just served as kitchen help and a shopper, and spent a lot of time on my laptop putting out fires.

But back to the crustaceans.  We had so much fun eating shellfish that we ordered lobsters a couple nights later and did it all again, even though lobster isn’t exactly a Baltimore tradition.  I, for one, was willing to overlook that.  We had them with drawn butter and homemade mayonnaise, and they were fabulous.  My genius sister-in-law made crèpes for dessert, and I really regretted not being able to pack my remaining few jars of 2009 jam.  I didn’t take pictures, because by then I could barely move.

dark days #14: crabby

Supplies are gettin’ low down at the ol’ homestead.  Which is a shame, ‘cuz I managed to squeeze in a few nights of cooking this week.  Next week, I’m hoping I can cook AND blog.  There’s a light at the end of my tunnel of lo…work.

So, cursorily: this week’s Dark Days winter local eating challenge used up some (of the many) dried foods I put up last summer.  Speaking of love, we had freshly steamed dungeness crabs for Valentine’s Day, then used up the leftover crab meat to make a gorgeous, silky, spicy crab soup.  The soup lacked my customary Old Bay (I had used up the very last bit) and home-canned tomatoes (I’m plum out).  Instead, I fortified the dried vegetable-and-crab-leg-shell stock base with a couple of cups of half and half.  A jar of homemade pepper salsa and just two tiny slices of dried habanero gave the soup plenty of kick.

As for the other dried vegetables, I used about two cups of mixed dried corn, peas, carrots, green beans, butternut squash, onions, red peppers, celery and garlic to six cups of boiling water.  The vegetables were a combination of my own garden produce and frozen vegetables from Stahlbush Island Farms, our local organic processing plant.  At the end of summer, when vegetables are overflowing the trucks, even the organic frozen vegetable outfits will put their products on sale, so I snapped them up and had a drying fiesta.  And thank goodness, because they come in handy.

I let the vegetables rehydrate for a couple of hours, then added the salsa and habanero.    While the vegetables were plumping up, I sauteed a small yellow onion and a few stalks of celery.  I had my doubts about the dried celery, since I hadn’t dried it properly.  I suspected it would be tough, and I was right.  Next year, celery chips?

Just before serving, I removed the crab shells flavoring the broth, added the crab and Noris cream, and was good to go.  The celery-crab combination is one of those magic flavor connections.  I highly recommend it.

By they way, if you’re craving fresh local vegetables, there is already a nice selection at the Winter Farmers Market in the Mazzi’s parking lot on Saturday mornings.  You can pick up greens, leeks, onions, potatoes, squash, salad materials, and other good stuff, including dried fruit, eggs, and olive oil.  I also scored a wonderful gallon of winter apple cider from Riverbend Farm and some excellent pork chops from the Biancalana family.  Yum.

dark days challenge #6: oregon crab soup

Keeping with the soupy theme of my Dark Days weekly local food posts, I thought I’d show off my adaptation of Maryland crab soup, one of my Baltimorean husband’s favorite treats.  We used the leftover crab from our dungeness crab feast on Christmas to make a spicy, tomato-based soup.

I have to say I’m not a fan of the ice-cold pre-cracked crab they think everyone wants here in Oregon.  I was a bit annoyed on Christmas Eve when I opened up my sack from Fisherman’s Market and found my crabs cracked and cleaned, the top shells gone.  Note to self:  always check bag, especially during holiday busy times.  I was planning to heat them up, crack them open at the table, and enjoy the slightly briny, slightly bitter mustard goop with Old Bay spice…in true Maryland fashion.  But instead, the crabs were opened, scraped free of mustard, and doused in ice, which makes the meat soggy and dilutes the flavor.  Grrrr.

Regardless, the crab meat was still delicious.  I hear and can attest to the news that the dungeness crab season has been an excellent one, so if you’re near Oregon, run, don’t walk, to your nearest fish market.

Maryland crab soup has as many variations as any authentic local recipe.  I rarely meet one I don’t like.  It’s a great day-after-crab-boil meal with the leftover crab.  My Oregon version is a combination of painstakingly homemade and convenience foods, and it’s 100% Oregonian.  Adapt as you see fit!  But if you plan to use the top shells of the crabs to enrich your beef stock, watch your fish market salesperson like a hawk.  Or a seagull.  Or something.

I still have a few stalks of local celery from a couple of weeks ago, thank goodness, since celery is crucial for the soup.  I should have added a local potato, since potatoes are delicious with the spice mix from Maryland called Old Bay that’s so important for the soup, but I was in a hurry and didn’t want to wait. I did use my homemade celery salt (made with local celeriac) instead of my usual kosher flake salt, and it added a wonderful low celery base note.

Lima beans are often used in this soup, but we don’t grow them that much here, and I didn’t want to rely on non-local limas.  Frozen vegetables were going to be necessary, so I used frozen Stahlbush Island Classic Mixed Vegetables, our Willamette Valley purveyor of frozen organic local fruits and veggies.  The green beans were dried by me last summer, and briefly reconstituted in hot water before adding them to the stock.  The onions were from the larder and my frozen tomato sauce was added to provide tomatoey goodness.  The beef marrow bones I used to make the stock were from Market of Choice, and I’m just going to hope they were local.  The bacon was from Sweet Briar Farm.

As for the Old Bay seasoning, this Baltimorean spice mix is found at fish markets and premium grocery stores, and it doesn’t really have a substitute.  I was going to try to make a slightly more local version with leaves from my bay bush, but felt too lazy.  If you’d like to give it a go, here is the recipe I was planning to make.  Of all the recipes I perused, it looked like it had the greatest chance of having similar proportions to the original.

Oregon Crab Soup

Makes four portions.  Does not keep well past a day or so.

  • bacon fat or butter
  • 1 small onion, chopped finely
  • 2-4 slices bacon, chopped
  • 4-5 cups homemade beef stock
  • 2 clean, boiled, top shells from dungeness crabs (optional, but it adds depth to stock)
  • 1 cup stewed tomatoes or pureed tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning, or to taste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup fresh dungeness crab meat
  • 2 cups mixed vegetables, fresh or frozen (corn, peas, carrots, limas, cabbage)
  • 1 cup green beans, in 1-inch pieces
  • 1 small waxy potato (a Yukon gold, for example), diced into small pieces
  • salt and black pepper to taste

Prepare the soup base: sauté the onion in some bacon fat or butter.  Add the bacon pieces.  Pour in the beef stock and bring to a simmer.  Add the crab shells, tomatoes, Old Bay, and bay leaf.  Let simmer for 20-30 minutes to meld the flavors as you are preparing the fresh crab meat and vegetables.

Remove crab meat from its crustacian home and chop vegetables.  If you are using frozen vegetables, measure them out.  Home-dried vegetables will also work.  Reconstitute them at this point with hot water.

Add mixed vegetables, green beans, and potato dice to soup.  Cook for another 1o-15 minutes to soften vegetables, then remove crab shells and add crab meat just before serving.  Adjust for taste, adding more Old Bay for spiciness, and salt and freshly ground pepper as needed.  Be careful with the Old Bay, as it has salt in the mix.  Serve immediately.