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All About Blue Crabs

 

Catching Blue Crabs
Crabbing methods range from simple and inexpensive to an elaborate investment of time and money. A dip net is the primary catching device that also serves to transport the crab to your container. But what happens if the crab gets loose?
Crabs are quick and can bite or pinch with their claws. Although they seldom do more than draw a little blood, the bite can momentarily be painful. It is a good idea to learn how to handle a live hard-shelled crab with your bare hands.
A crab must be held from the back, away from the snapping claws. But in order to get hold of it, you must first find a way to keep it still. Press lightly on the top shell with a shoe, stick, or other device. Too much pressure will crack the shell.
The thumb(s) should then be placed on top of the swimming paddle where it meets the body (shell) and the forefinger(s) are placed underneath where the same swimming paddle meets the underbody. All of the other fingers are closed into the palm of the hand. Keep a firm grip on the crab. When it is held tightly, you can then pick it up without being bitten.
It is not possible for the crab to reach back and bite the fingers because of it's body conformation. If you are a little nervous, or the crab seems rather large and strong, use both hands...one on each swimming paddle to pick it up!
Now, the tried and true method of cheaply catching blue crab is simple. Grab a flight to the East Coast, preferably Baltimore. Situate yourself in a public area on a break-wall or a highway overpass located on one of many inlets on the Chesepeake Bay. Bring some scap beef chunks, string, a dip net, and an old apple basket with a lid. Cut the string to 12 to 20 foot lengths, depending on the depth of the water. Tie a beef chunk to one end of the string and fasten the other end to a secure point at your location. Toss the meat into the water and sit back.  When the line begins to tighten, you got yourself a blue crab grabbing onto the meat. Slowly begin to draw the line in and scoop up the crab with a dip net and place it in the basket. Bingo! Your crabbin'.
[ Crabs in Steam Pot ] In this photograph (circa 1972) my brother Tim displays the fine art of crabbing! The water depth averaged about six feet off my Grandma's wharf. 

It's hard to tell from this lousy picture, but the image you see in the water is actually a blue crab hanging on to his dinner with both claws.

 
Steaming  Blue Crabs
Steaming hard-shell blue crabs, especially if you caught them yourself, is the sweet finale to the day's adventure! Use a crab-steamer if you have one, if not, any big pot will do as long as you have something to put in the bottom that raises the crabs out of the water while steaming.
Wash your crabs off with running water before you steam them. Not much rinsing is required, and it gives you a chance to remove any dead crabs. Dead crabs should NOT be eaten. Deterioration takes place and bacteria multiplies rapidly in dead shellfish, so why take a chance! Also, remember not to mix plates, gloves, or anything else that has touched the live crabs with the cooked crabs. Salmonella and other bacterial agents transport easily.
Before you start the cooking process it is a good idea to get the table covered with paper, set out knives and mallets, paper towels, and anything else for your feast. When the crabs are ready...everyone wants to eat!
For each dozen of blue claw hard-shell crabs, use one cup of water and one cup of vinegar, which should be put in the container first.
Use tongs, or a gloved hand to place the crabs on an elevated platform in the container after the liquid is boiling. Then generously sprinkle seasoning over each layer of crabs. Steam about twenty to thirty minutes and eat them while they are hot! 

The dried seasoning may be purchased at the grocery store or fish market or you can make your own. About five ounces of dried mixture is sprinkled in layers, on each dozen crabs in the pot. 

The following ingredients makes two pounds of seasoning for about six dozen crabs. Mix well and store in an airtight jar until ready for use.
    • 1 lb. coarse salt (small rock salt)
    • 5 oz. crushed red pepper
    • 3 oz. dried mustard
    • 1 1/2 oz. ginger
    • 1 oz. black pepper
    • 1 oz. celery flakes
    • 1 oz. onion flakes
    • 1/2 oz. celery seeds
    • 1/2 oz. crushed bay leaves
    • 1/2 oz. laurel leaves
    • 1/2 oz. cinnamon
    • 1/2 oz. paprika
    • 1/2 oz. thyme
    • 1/2 oz. mace
Picking Blue Crabs
Techniques for picking and cleaning the meat from a steamed hard-shelled crab are as different as the people who catch them. Some people go at it with a mallet, crushing all the delicate membrane into the succulent meat and leaving too much waste behind. Others take their time, watch how their neighbors extract large juicy chunks of the crab, and find their own unique way of getting the most meat for their labor. The masters of picking steamed crabs rarely talk...they eat!
Here are the basics, with variations you may wish to try, whether you are an old hand or just beginning. If you are picking crabs for a recipe or for storage, put more meat in the bowl than in your mouth!
First, cover the table with heavy brown paper, or newspapers. You may also want a bowl, a paring knife, a cutting board for hammering and cracking the claws, a small wooden mallet, paper towels, refreshments, and a lined trash can by the table.
[ Crab Apron ] Place the crab on its back, belly up. Notice the apron in the middle of the crab body. This photo is of a male crab, a female crab apron looks very different. Take the point of a knife, or use your fingers to lift up the apron. Pull it back away from the body, break it off and discard. 
[ Lifting Shell ] Turn the crab over, belly down and facing away from you. To take the top shell off, put your thumb or a knife under the back edge of the shell and lift it up, off, and discard. 
 
Next, with your fingers or a knife, scrape off the six gills (lungs, sometimes called the dead man) on either side of the open body. These gills are not edible, so discard.
[ Remove Lungs ] The yellow, green, red, orange, or brownish-colored material found just behind the mouth area is the fat, heart, and/or the eggs (roe) of the crab and is good to eat. Press down and break off the mouth area and discard. 
[ Cut Crab in Half ] At this point, the experts diverge in opinion about whether to pull the claws and all of the legs off to eat later. I like to have them on for something to hold on to when I pick up the crab to break it in half. There are other reasons to leave the appendages on the body, as you will see. You can also use a knife to cut the crab, as shown in the photo. 
[ Cut Membrane Cover ] The meat under the membrane cover on each half of the crab can be exposed by removing this cover with a knife. Or you may slice, or break lengthwise through the center of each half without removing the membrane. 
Each of these methods will expose large succulent chunks of meat, which may be removed with your fingers or a knife.
Everyone has heard of backfin crab meat! This is why I like to leave the legs on, and prefer not to go beyond breaking the crab in half.
[ Backfin Meat ] Hold the swimming paddle just beyond the joint on the body and break it free, the huge backfin meat pops out, with almost no membrane. You can pull each leg and the claw off in this fashion to be rewarded with chucks of meat. 
[ Picking Meat ] Expose the meat under the membrane covering by breaking or cutting it. The tender chunks can be removed with your fingers, a fork, or a nut pick. Make sure that your take out all of the membranes before placing the meat in your bowl (for storage, or recipes) or before eating. 
I like to save the claws to eat last because their flavor is so unique! It also gives me a chance to perfect my skill in getting the meat out whole.
[ Breaking the Claw ] Put the claw on the table (on a cutting board, if necessary) with the inside of the pincers facing up. Place a metal blade just behind the joint where the pincers join, and hold the blade steady. Rap the top edge of the blade with a mallet, just enough to score the shell of the claw. 
[ Whole Claw Meat ] Hold both sides of the claw in each hand. The hand holding the pincer should have the thumb just below the score mark, with the forefinger knuckle curved behind the back side, also below the score mark. Snap the pincers off. 
The meat should come out whole. Put it in your mouth, bite down to the membrane, pull between your teeth to drag the meat off into your mouth. If it doesn't work the first time, dig the meat out with a knife and try again! The same technique is used for the upper arm of the claw.
When all the crabs have been cleaned and picked, whatever you didn't eat may be used to prepare the dish of choice or else frozen. About eighteen to twenty crabs when cleaned will produce a pound of crab meat (two cups). If there are some crabs left over; claws, legs, and even half bodies can be thrown in a pot to start crab soup!
A chef once told me that if the swimming paddle joints are crushed a little and thrown in the soup pot, the flavor is superb! Norm Dreisch, of Harris Cove Bed n' Boat, likes to start a crab soup broth by boiling out the "innards" from the carapace shell, plus all that roe and fat from the center of the crab. Makes a wonderful base (especially if there is seasoning on the shells).
The best thing about having crabs for dinner is the cleanup! Be sure to look over the table and take everything out that doesn't get thrown away. Then just roll up the paper and put it in the trash bag. If at all possible, take the bag outside to a varmint proof can, as it will smell up the house by the next morning!
Recipes for Blue Crab Meat

Soft-Shell Crabs

Cleaning:
Live soft-shelled crabs are "put down" before cleaning. It may seem unpleasant, but the quickest way to do this is by sticking the point of a knife or an ice pick between the eyes. If you bought your soft-shell frozen, let it thaw a bit before cleaning.
Lay the soft-shelled crab on its back (belly up) and remove the apron. Turn the crab over, lift up the pointed ends (spikes) and remove the six gills on each side. Then replace each point to its original position. With scissors, cut off the mouth, eyes and feelers. Wash the crab thoroughly, even under the spikes.
Cooking:
Dip the crab in egg and cracker meal and fry, deep-fry or broil for ten minutes (five minutes on each side) and season to taste.
West Indies Salad
This recipe is from Noni Stokes from Mobile, Alabama (LA they call it - Lower Alabama) It's a type of pickled crab meat and very much a delicacy. Noni says it's very pricey in most establishments in Lower Alabama! Thanks for sharing it, Noni.
1 medium onion chopped fine
3 oz. cider vinegar
1 lb. lump crab meat
4 oz. ice water
4 oz. vegetable (Wesson) Oil
salt and pepper
Spread half of the onion over bottom of a large bowl. Cover with separated crab lumps and then remaining onion. Salt and pepper to taste. Pour oil, vinegar, ice water over everything. Cover and marinate for two to twelve hours. Toss lightly before serving.
Additional note: Aside from the original recipe above, Noni likes to add about a half of a bell pepper, finely minced, to the onion.
She says that most restaurants serve this cold, in very small portions rather than shrimp cocktail. She prefers it in large quantities and on a bed of lettuce. Bon appetite!!!
Deviled Crab
3 tablespoons butter  1/2 teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoons onion, finely chopped  3/4 teaspoon salt 
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce  2 to 3 cups cooked crab meat 
3 tablespoons flour  1 cup milk 
1 teaspoon dry mustard  1/2 cup cream 
Red or black pepper, a few grains  1/2 cup grated cheese 
1/2 cup buttered crumbs   
Heat butter; add onion and cook over low heat until onion is soft but not browned. Blend in flour and seasoning. Slowly add mild and cook, stirring constantly over low heat until thickened. Add cream. Remove from heat.
Pick over crab meat to remove any cartilage membrane the may have been missed in cleaning. Add to hot sauce
Fill crab shell (washed and scrubbed) or cooking shells. Sprinkle with buttered crumbs, grated cheese and a dash of paprika.
Bake in moderate oven (375 degrees) for twenty to twenty-five minutes until brown. This makes six servings. Add five or six shakes of hot sauce to crab meat if you like your deviled crab hotter.
Crab Meat Au Gratin
Pick over two cups of crab meat and remove cartilage. Combine with two cups of medium white sauce, one and one half tablespoons lemon juice, one and one-half teaspoons grated onion. Turn into greased casserole: top with buttered crumbs and paprika (add a little grated cheese if desired). Bake at 375 degrees for twenty-five minutes or until browned. This makes six to eight servings.
Crab Meat Newbury
1 cup cream or evaporated milk  3/4 teaspoon salt 
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce  1/2 teaspoon paprika 
1 tablespoon (or more) sherry wine  1/8 teaspoon nutmeg 
3 tablespoons butter  2 egg yokes 
6 slices buttered toast  2 cups cooked crab meat 
Heat the cream with the butter in top part of a double boiler. Add crab, salt, paprika and nutmeg. Beat egg yolks; add Worcestershire sauce and sherry wine and mix a little hot liquid with the yolks. Pour the egg mixture into the sauce. Cook one or two minutes more over simmering water. Serve on toast. This makes four to six servings.
Crab Cakes New Orleans
1 pound (2-3 cups) cooked crab meat  1 can celery, chicken or mushroom soup 
1 small can mushrooms (don't drain)  1 small can pimentos (cut up) 
1 can drained peas  1 can whole kernel corn 
Pepper to taste   
Use fresh vegetables if possible. Mix all ingredients, place in Pyrex dish and cover with bread crumbs that have been slightly buttered. Bake a 350 degrees for forty minutes. This will serve six people.
Hot Crab Dip
1 lb. crabmeat
1/2 pint sour cream
3 Tblsp. lemon juice
1/2 cup Cheddar cheese, grated (use 1/4 in mix and 1/4 on top)
2 ( 8 0z. ) pkg. cream cheese (at room temp.)
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. seafood seasoning
2 Tblsp. horseradish
Mix all ingredients together. Sprinkle cheese on top. Cover with paprika. Bake at 350 degrees until crusty and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.