Sunday, July 20, 2008
Putting the "she" in she crab soup
It isn’t the female blue crab eggs that usually put the she in Charleston, S.C.’s elegant she crab soup.
A dribble of sherry wine and whipped cream in to each piping hot bowl is what actually sets the soup apart from bisques and chowders, said Ricky Jones, a manager of a Crab Shacks, a popular chain restaurant in the South Carolina seaport city where the dish originated.
“It’s just one of those things you can’t find anywhere else,” Jones said.
A butler to Charleston Mayor R. Goodwyn Rhett supposedly created the soup as a special meal during a visit by President William Howard Taft about 1908. The butler was asked to spice up the pale, white crab soup they usually ate, and he decided to tint it orange by adding crab eggs, or so the story went.
Chefs these days use a trick to substitute the crab eggs with finely chopped carrots for coloring and an extra dash of salt, Jones said. Crab eggs are expensive, hard to find and only available in the spring.
And it may come as a surprise to some diners that chefs in Charleston and elsewhere in the United States aren’t using the tasty, sweet Chesapeake blue crabs, either, to make the soup or crab cakes.
Commercial trapping of the crab is prohibited in the Chesapeake Bay area because of their dwindling population, according to the fishmonger at Wholey’s in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. The cans of lump blue crab meat that are sold now are packed in Asia, he said.
There was a time when these crab cakes were sold almost exclusively in the bay area. But the cakes that don’t have a fishy taste have become so popular that they can be found on many menus across the nation, either as appetizers, sandwiches or drizzled with hot mustard or sweet-and-sour sauce.
Crab meat is more available inland because the Asian crabbing market has expanded in the United States, said Mike Williamson, owner of Solomon Seafood restaurant in Washington, Pa.
Many people from this area vacation at the beach, have developed a taste for the blue crab and want to eat it here, too, Williamson said.
“It reminds them of the beach,” he said.
The cakes are always best when they contain more crab meat than cake. And, restaurant-quality crab cakes are easy to make at home if you know where to find a good fishmonger and how to fry food in a skillet.
But the cost of a 15-ounce can of crab can rise and fall like oil, an was recently as high as $25 apiece in Pittsburgh. So be careful with the spices until you are comfortable with them in the right doses.
Meaty She Crab Soup
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon flour
21⁄2 cups milk
11⁄2 cups heavy cream
1 (15-ounce) can lump blue crab meat
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1⁄2 carrot finely grated
Pinch of mace, thyme, white pepper and celery salt
Dry sherry, whipped cream and fresh parsley for garnish
In a double boiler, melt butter and slowly add flour until dissolved. Add milk slowly, stirring continuously, until smooth. Add remaining ingredients and cook over simmering water for 20 minutes.
To each bowl before serving, add a teaspoon of sherry and a small dollop of whipped cream and sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley.
Thai-Inspired Crab Cakes
Makes: About 10 meaty crab cakes
1 (15-ounce) can lump blue crab meat
3⁄4 cup Kellogg’s Corn Flake Crumbs
4 leaves fresh mint, cut into tiny pieces with scissors
2 cloves minced garlic
1⁄2 fresh lime, juiced
1 small onion, diced
1 teaspoon dried cilantro
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon brown mustard
Pinch of sea salt and pepper
Season to taste with sweetened red chili sauce with sesame seeds (available at an Asian market), or use Old Bay seasoning, hot sauce or freshly chopped red chili peppers
Toss ingredients into food processor, chop and combine well. Form into patties, and roll them around in some more Kellogg’s crumbs. Fry cakes in a large skillet with more than enough olive oil to cover the pan for about 3 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels before serving.
(First published in the Observer-Reporter)