One thing about culinary school – you forget the beauty of simplicity. Not that you never learn about simple dishes, like how to properly prepare a hard boiled egg or make fresh whipped cream. But a lot of emphasis is on the more complicated meals. Why go to culinary school if you were taught to make PB&J sandwiches instead of roasted venison with huckleberry jus?
I had a wonderfully simple meal this weekend, and. My family has always had a boat on the Chesapeake Bay, and I ventured out with my parents for "a day on the bay" and a meal at Mike's Crab House, a restaurant located in Riva, Maryland, just outside Annapolis.
We docked the boat at the end of Mike's long pier, and headed into the restaurant. It was a spectacular Fall day, so we decided to sit at one of the wooden tables outside. I was intent on ordering crab cakes (Mike's meaty crab cakes are perfectly spiced with Old Bay seasoning and are absolutely wonderful). Still, my father was able to sway the family in the direction of steamed crabs, because the crab season was ending.
I was hesitant. I hadn't eaten steamed crabs in awhile, and remembered that picking the meat from the hardy shell was a laborious process. The long swath of dark brown paper that the waiter unfurled on the table gave warning of the messy task to come. Yet when I cracked into the first Old Bay-caked claw and extracted the sweet crab meat, all doubts disappeared. It was simply wonderful in a way that crab cakes, as good as they are at Mike's, can never be. The vinegar and extra Old Bay seasoning that are served on the side for dipping creates a clean but complex flavor combination – the sweetness of crab meat, bite of Old Bay and tang of vinegar. The steamers were divine, eaten with the accompaniments of simply on their own.
Luckily, a crab feast is something that is easy to prepare at home if you're not Maryland-bound anytime soon. Here in New York, an excellent place to start is Sea Breeze Fish Market (9th Ave & 40th St, 212.563.7537). It’s not for prissy shoppers – the floors are slick, many of the fish are whole and you may emerge smelling of the ocean – but it has a superior variety of items at affordable prices. Two big buckets of live crabs greet you when you walk in the door, ready to be doused in seasoning and steamed (call for market prices). Make sure the crabs you select are living – like clams and mussels, crabs should never be dead prior to cooking. Sea Breeze also sells the Old Bay spice necessary for seasoning.
After you've brought home the crustaceans, keep them alive! Store the crabs in a cool, moist area, like the bottom of a cooler lined with ice and covered with wet paper towels. The ideal temperature for storing crabs is 50 F, and the average 36 F temperature of a fridge will ultimately kill them. It's an okay environment for awhile, but plan on cooking the creatures on the day of purchase.
I could detail a recipe myself, but I would like to defer to David Rosengarten's crab feast article on msnbc.com. The "Baltimore Spice" blend that he recommends is terrific, as is the extensive information on how to prepare and serve crabs.