Dressed crab

Back with a bang, Dabbler foodie expert Jassy explains how to make dressed crab – beginning with murdering it…

When I get nostalgic for the seaside, I fondly imagine sitting down at a rough wooden table and eating crab smeared on brown bread, wiping my fingers on a plasticky paper napkin between each creamily saline mouthful. Which is pretentious of me, because the whole time I spent growing up by the sea I never once ate dressed crab. Or undressed crab. Or crab at all.

My real seaside memories are made of ice cream that was mostly air and vegetable oil, lollies thick with food dye and sugar, and obese, fat-soaked chips shimmering with vinegar and crusted with salt. Crab – and all fish and seafood – rarely featured in my south coast diet. Even in the chip shop I’d order battered sausage. When you spend a lot of time swimming in the sea, you quickly become suspicious of any animal that can survive in it and cut them from your meals entirely.

So it’s at a safe, land-locked distance, that I consider crab now. It’s spectacularly redolent of the sea, more so that the swift, scaled fish that dart about the murky waters off our coastline. Eating crab is like licking the underside of a rotting pier. It tastes of the muddy, wet sand that steams in the sunshine when the tide ebbs away, reeking of seaweed and cuttlefish shells. It’s a primeval, creeping flavour that drags you from the water and up onto the beach, like the first brave fish to make its way onto land and swap its gills for lungs.

If eating crab is a storm of sensory challenges, cooking and preparing it rips my soft, modern morality to pieces. It’s the only creature I kill and butcher myself.

I’ve been taught various methods for humanely dispatching crabs and every single one of them has resulted in a furious, scalded crab trying to kick the lid off the pan while I hold the lid down and scream: “More weights! Get me more weights! It’s going to break free!”

Consequently, I don’t believe there is a kind way to kill a crab. Cattle aren’t lulled to death, chickens do not go gently into that good night, and crabs die screaming in agony – it’s just up to you to choose what type. The benefit of freezing them into a coma is that you don’t have to watch them suffer.

Once cooked, pulling the crab apart is a final reminder of the indignities of death. Every single time I do it, I have to look up the method. My mind has a put a block on the process. I now rely on this video to take me through the leg twisting, claw smashing and crevice picking.

After all that, dressing the crab is a simple matter of stirring in some mayonnaise. It has to be good mayonnaise. There’s no point going through all this slaughter only to finish the dish off with some watery mayo from a jar. Make your own following this recipe and show your crab you cared.

Eating dressed crab requires three things: a hot day, a pile of buttered brown bread and a glass of very cold sauvignon blanc from the Loire. Paper napkins and a seaside view are optional.

Dressed crab

Serves 2 (or 1 person expansively)

1 x 1kg crab
1–2 tbsp good mayonnaise
Lemon juice
Parsley, lemon wedges and brown bread and butter, to serve

1. If you’ve bought a live crab, the first thing you must do is murder it. Begin by freezing it for a couple of hours so it’s insensible with cold. Then lay the crab on its back and, working quickly, lift the tail flap and drive a skewer through the small dent there and wriggle it from side to side to cut through the hind nerve. Stab the skewer through the depression just below its eyes and feelers and sweep from side to side to sever the front nerve.

2. Bring a large pan of very salty water to the boil (make it as salty as seawater) and boil your crab for 15 minutes if it weighs 1kg. If it’s larger, then add an extra minute for every 100g. Lift the crab out of the water and leave it to drain in the sink. Once it’s cold, you can begin taking it apart.

3. Twist the legs and claws off the crab’s body and set aside. Lay the crab on its back, place your thumbs under the body section by the crab’s tail and push up to push the body section up and out of the shell. Set aside. Lift the grey stomach sack out of the shell and pull out the lungs – the dead man’s fingers. They’re pointed and rubbery and easy to spot. Discard these.

4. Scrape all the body meat out of the shell and into a bowl with a teaspoon. Slice the body section in half and, using your fingers, wriggle out the brown meat from the crevices and add it to the body meat (the brown meat) in the bowl.

5 Using the back of the knife, thwack the claws to break them open and, using the handle of a teaspoon and a skewer, scrape and winkle all the white meat out and put it in a separate bowl. Insert a skewer into the legs and drag out any white meat from in there and add it to the claw meat.

6. Run your fingers through the white meat to break it up and catch any little bits of shell that may have made their way into the bowl. Use a fork to break up the brown meat and mash it. Stir the two meats together.

7. Stir the mayonnaise into the meats, then season with salt, freshly ground black pepper and lemon juice.

8. To serve the crabmeat in the shell, press down on the shell’s central edges to break them off and widen the opening (there are lines on the shell that mark this opening and make it easy to spot), then wash and dry the shell. Spoon the crabmeat into the shell and serve with a nostalgic curly parsley garnish, lemon wedges and buttered slices of brown bread.

9. Once you’ve eaten, you can wash the shell (they’re dishwasher friendly) and keep them for future meals.

You can read more of Jassy’s recipes and foodie-related blogging at the wonderful Gin and Crumpets.
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12 thoughts on “Dressed crab

  1. Gaw
    August 2, 2011 at 08:20

    Mouth-wateringly useful (and beautifully written).

    On trips to Norwich it’s worth popping into the covered market in the centre, buying a small dressed Cromer crab and tipping it onto a bag of hot, salty, vinegary chips. Shouldn’t be more than a fiver. What luxury.

    An easy crab recipe involves mixing crab, finely chopped fresh red chilli and flat leaf parsley, lemon or lime juice and olive oil (quite a lot) and adding to pasta (something light and stringy). The only cooking involved is boiling the pasta. I think it’s a River Cafe one. Incredibly quick, easy and delicious.

  2. Worm
    August 2, 2011 at 08:59

    yes Gaw I can vouch for that one, it’s delicious!

    Great writing Jassy, good to have you back! Crab can be super great when fresh; who doesn’t love fossicking in a crab claw with the back of a tea spoon to extract the sweet white meat inside. Although I’ve always had an irrational feeling in the back of my mind whilst eating one that I am infact eating an enormous spider, which kind of tempers my pleasure at the delicious flavour somewhat.

  3. gindrinkers@googlemail.com'
    August 2, 2011 at 09:56

    @Gaw Crab and chips sound awesome. I keep planning to go to Norfolk, and a bag of crab and chips could be what finally tempts me to make the pilgrimage.

    @Worm The spideriness is crab’s greatest flaw – makes it a slightly creepy thing to cook and eat. Less creepy than actually spiders, but still there is the occasional shiver of horror.

  4. jgslang@gmail.com'
    August 2, 2011 at 10:38

    My son the chef who goes mano a mano with various crustacea on a daily basis dispatches them with a very sharp pointed implement driven, I believe, into the brain. Whether this is painless I cannot say. but it is fast.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      August 2, 2011 at 19:14

      …not to mention fun.

    • gindrinkers@googlemail.com'
      August 3, 2011 at 16:58

      Ah, when it comes to killing things, I’m a bit slow and timid. The freeze-then-poke-skewers-in-them is the RSPCA approved method of dispatch. I comfort myself with that thought when I do it.

  5. info@shopcurious.com'
    August 2, 2011 at 14:09

    I’m dribbling onto my desk, Jassy. You can also add a dash of Tabasco to your crab mixture to spice it up a bit. The bread in your pic looks like Poilane, or some sort of sour dough – so much nicer than that horrid malted brown stuff they seem to serve everywhere these days.

    • gindrinkers@googlemail.com'
      August 3, 2011 at 17:02

      It’s actually a wholemeal farmhouse loaf form my local baker. They are a proper old fashioned bakers and does Belgian buns and read pudding as well as farmhouse loaves and bloomers. I love them dearly.

  6. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    August 2, 2011 at 17:11

    I got married quite early Jassy, moving seamlessly from my late mother’s attempts at cooking, to my wife’s. My mother’s mantra, like many in post-war Blighty, seemed to be based upon a constant cycle and re-cycle of food previously glimpsed, only to reappear disguised as something else; the original meal was never discovered. This table-apprenticeship ill prepared me for cooking food, but I became an expert at eating it. I love reading your posts, and I’m so glad you are back writing them – and as I am now staying by the sea in Spain, with plenty of time on my hands, I am going down to the harbour in a jiff to find a crab. I have a punch in my tool-kit and, taking Jonathon’s son’s advice, I will drive the punch into the brain which, Google tells me, is roughly where you would expect it to be. You make the rest sound quite simple and rewarding.

    • gindrinkers@googlemail.com'
      August 3, 2011 at 17:00

      Ooh, Spain, how lovely. Hope a little bit of crustacean slaughter provides you with some pleasing activity in the sunshine.

  7. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    August 2, 2011 at 19:12

    I grew up in the same town as Jassy and can sympathise with the sentiment that the sea there would be the last place you’d look for something edible. The “Even in the chip shop I’d order battered sausage” line made me literally LOL.

    • gindrinkers@googlemail.com'
      August 3, 2011 at 16:59

      I mean the beach does have a Blue Flag, but still…

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