Crab: Catch of the day
I’d love to make more dishes with crabmeat. But I never know where to get fresh crabmeat. Short of buying a whole crab at the fish markets and fiddling around with getting the meat out, what do you suggest? Is canned crabmeat okay for cooked dishes such as pasta? What is that surimi stuff you see in the supermarkets, is that really any good for cooking?
I have to say I am in love with crab at the moment as I’ve put on a new dish at The Sugar Club that, in my opinion, is fabulous. It’s linguine (we make it with Otago saffron) tossed with flaked white meat from New Zealand paddle crabs and a creamy broth based on dashi stock — a Japanese stock made with kombu seaweed and bonito flakes. On top of that we sprinkle tapioca we’ve cooked and marinated in crayfish and crab shell bisque to give them a lovely pearly look, and we finish the dish with lightly toasted pinenuts, chives and parmesan. It’s very delicate and light, but incredibly moreish.
In summer I love a simple salad of crab meat tossed with lemon juice and light olive oil, spooned over baby cherry tomatoes and peas with toasted breadcrumbs and snipped chervil on top. And a whopping great wok full of bubbling chillied crab, cut into quarters and cooked in the shell, tossed with ginger, heaps of garlic, coconut cream and coriander is a must-have when I’m in parts of South East Asia. Singapore chilli-crab is to die for, and a freshly cooked crab at one of Britain’s crab shacks, served with buttered white bread and mayonnaise, into which you stir the brown crab meat, is simply divine.
The good thing about crab is that it’s packed full of protein and it contains a couple of really useful fatty acids that may help lower blood pressure. It’s also thought to boost your immune system as it contains trace elements of zinc selenium and copper. So, not only does it taste and look great, it is excellent for your health.
What is less good, in many ways, are those strange crabstick look-a-likey things that are bright red on the outside, called surimi. It’s to be found all around the world on hotel and holiday resort buffets, tossed with sweet mayonnaise and grated carrots, or laid across iceberg lettuce drizzled with thousand island dressing. Occasionally it’s to be found battered on a stick and deep-fried like a hot dog, or chopped into chunks and folded through an omelette.
I have eaten my fair share of it. I’m not a total food snob, and I have to confess to preferring the hot-dog version over the salad ones, although every time I eat it I promise myself I won’t ever do it again. It contains a zillion ingredients, including, luckily fish (from by-catch), it usually contains egg whites and some shellfish or squid or cuttlefish, it’s held together with a variety of starches, then flavoured with abundant sodium and a generous dose of MSG. If you’re allergic to any foods or additives it’d be worth making sure none of them are in the brand of surimi you’re eating. Surimi is not in any shape or form a substitute for crab and you need to treat it as an altogether different ingredient. Just like you would if it were lamb . . . or broccoli — that’s how different it is.
Frozen or canned crab, on the other hand, can be a good second choice, but as with all foods, there are quality and not-so-quality products on the market. I can’t recommend any one brand over another, but what you want to avoid is a pasty claggy meat that has very little true delicate crab textures. Canned meat will, in all likelihood, have been heated in order to preserve it, so the fresh nature of the meat will have been lost. Frozen meat will likely be better quality (but not always) than canned as it may well have been raw when it was frozen, with no additives added, although that will depend on when it was frozen and where.
If you can be bothered though, boil up a crab, wrap it in a tea towel and attack it gently with a hammer, wear a bib, and have some homemade mayonnaise at hand — and you won’t regret the effort!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.