Learn how to create restaurant-worthy wonders with this crustacean.
Note Fried shallots are available from Asian grocers.
The crab is sometimes regarded as the poorer cousin of lobster, but crab lovers contend that though you have to fight to free every morsel from the shell, the meat is far superior in succulence and sweetness. They're eaten with gusto around the world, and regional variations - the hairy crab, much sought-after in China, the humble British brown crab or the land crabs of Thailand - are prized by aficionados. Methods of preparation vary widely, but whether it's a good ol'-fashioned crab boil in the Deep South or pepper crab in Singapore, the common factor is the gung-ho sleeves-up enthusiasm of the people eating the dish.
Crabmeat can, of course, be purchased already picked from its shell. But the quality of meat is rarely as good as the fresh stuff, and you miss out on the satisfaction of doing the job yourself.
When choosing crabs, ensure they're heavy for their size, with no signs of blackening around the joints. One of the surest signs of freshness is the smell - redolent of the sea. If a crab is past its best, it will reek of ammonia.
A crab sold 'green' is raw and needs to be cooked. If you want it in pieces for a dish, such as a stirfry, cut it up (follow the method from step 3) before cooking. For a live crab, which is the way mud crab is sold, the RSPCA recommends putting it to sleep by placing it in a freezer below 4C before cooking. The time needed varies between crabs - you'll know it's asleep when you can handle it without resistance. Purchase crabs live (although blue swimmer crabs are almost never sold live) when possible as the flesh breaks down quickly once a crab is dead.
Boiling a whole crab couldn't be simpler. As with most seafood the cooking time is short. Take care as the flesh turns stringy if it's even slightly over-cooked. Ensure your water is well salted (about the saltiness of sea water - around ¼ cup of rock salt per litre) and that it is at a rolling boil before you add the crab. You need to boil a crab for eight minutes per every 500gm it weighs (not the combined total weight if you're cooking more than one). Placing it in iced water afterwards will help prevent spoiling.
The most succulent flesh is found in the claws, and a crab cracker (a nutcracker will do) and long metal pick make the job much easier. They can be purchased from most kitchenware stores. It is almost impossible to remove raw crabmeat from the shell; if you're making a dish with picked crabmeat, follow the boiling method opposite and remove the flesh after cooking. This can be a somewhat messy business, so pick your crabs over several layers of newspaper. The paper will soak up any liquid, and can be rolled up with the shells and neatly discarded.
Speaking of mess, it's always a good idea to have fingerbowls and plenty of napkins on hand if you're serving guests crab in the shell. A wedge of lemon or splash of tea in the fingerbowls will make them more effective. Alan Davidson quotes Damon Runyon on the matter in his superb North Atlantic Seafood. His advice for eating crab is with the hands: "Some high-toned folks use those dinky oyster forks, but the fingers are far speedier and more efficient," and, he adds, the best place to eat crab is in the bathtub.