Thursday, August 18, 2016

Cooking Experiment #3: I am Team Steam

"Are you on Team Steam or Team Boil?" a food magazine raised this question in its recent issue about crabs - referring to the "right" way of cooking them. In my adopted home state of Maryland, famous for its crab dishes using Atlantic blue crabs from the nearby Chesapeake Bay, we are firm believers of Team Steam and the question was not even debatable, period.

And we also have our special way of preparing the crabs, using beer and vinegar as steaming liquid and a special spice mix called "Old Bay" layered on top of the crabs. Outsiders might look at the cooked crabs and thought they all looked "muddy" and messy but to us, that's the way crabs should be like (there are always jokes that out-of-towners would start wiping them clean before they ate the crabs). Old Bay is well known in Maryland in its signature yellow can as we put that in everything from seafood to chicken and fries or corn, but probably less so elsewhere especially once you are out of the Mid-Atlantic states. The list of ingredients is proprietary, but it's said to have contained mustard, celery salt, paprika, black peppers, crushed red peppers and more. In my opinion this is the essential ingredient for an authentic "Maryland Crab Cakes".

Many of my friends knew I love including Old Bay in my cooking just to show some "hometown love" and as a tribute to the place where I started to cook, and often they would bring me back a new supply of it whenever they traveled to the States and saw them in grocery stores. And I am always eager to re-make the classic Maryland steamed crabs thousands of miles away. It’s impossible to find Atlantic blue crabs on this side of the world, so I substituted with local flower crabs, which I believe were their distant relatives (I am not 100% sure, so if there’s any marine biologist who read this they can enlighten me). And the ones I used are slightly bigger than those we traditionally had - back home we always did by the dozen (for each person!) but for this size, two each seems to be a good point to start especially if you only have that as part of your meal. But other than that, this is done exactly like a true Marylander did, especially during summer months while crabs are in their prime season.

Recipe: Maryland-style Steamed Crabs (yields 4 medium-sized crabs)

  • 4 medium-sized flower crabs (if possible ask for the male ones only for its firmer meat)
  • 1 can of lager beer (bonus point if you could find a can of Natty Bo for the real Maryland flavor)
  • 1/4 cup of cider vinegar
  • 1 cup of Old Bay Seasonings

1. Keep the crabs in the refrigerator while you prepare the pot for steaming.
2. Put beer, vinegar, water and 2 tablespoon of Old Bay Seasonings in a large stockpot over the stove. Turn heat to high and bring the liquid to a boil.
3. Right before cooking, clean crabs over running water, then for each crab, stick a knife through the shells behind its mouth.
4. In a steaming basket laid inside the stockpot but above the liquid, carefully put each crab into the basket and sprinkle 1-2 tablespoons of Old Bay Seasoning on top of it. Repeat for the rest of the crabs. Sprinkle all remaining Old Bay Seasonings into the pot, cover and cook for approximately 20 minutes until the crabs were cooked through and their shells turned into a bright orange color. Add more water/beer into the pot in case it's drying up while steaming.
5. To serve, put old newspaper on the table and just dump the cooked crabs on it (with all the seasonings still covered on top). (yes, it can get quite messy). Bring out the knife and gavel/mallet (to crack the shells) and dig in with your hands. Optionally, you can prepare a bowl of melted butter for dipping on the side but I personally don't think that's necessary. (and don't even try using cocktail sauce)

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