Food is an obsession in San Francisco, where I lived for a number of years before moving to Baltimore. There, I patronized a wonderful fish market called The Swan Oyster Depot. The proprietor would call me at home to tell me if the “softs” he had flown in from Maryland that day were worth a shopping trip. A few times I called him only to hear that shipment had arrived with comatose crabs, so I shouldn’t bother to come by unless I wanted to settle for Dungeness.
So consider yourself lucky to live where swimming blue crab is a local delicacy. Though pricey, they’re not as expensive as they were in San Francisco.
With crabbing industries all along the coast from the Chesapeake to Florida, you can get fresh soft-shells all spring long. And when you can’t wait for spring, local frozen ones are available year-round at Faidley’s in the Lexington Market.
For those who decidedly don’t salivate at the sight of little legs dangling off the plate, crabmeat is always available, and has as many delicious uses as there are crabs in the bay. The great debate now centers on whether imported crabmeat- from Southeast Asia and other foreign parts- rivals (or even comes close to) the sweet flavor of Chesapeake crabs. If you are making crab cakes for company, be sure to ask for and use only those from the Chesapeake. Fresh pasteurized crab, available in plastic containers in the refrigerated case of your supermarket, is acceptable- but just barely- for other dishes.
Since everyone has a “secret” family recipe for crab cakes, you won’t find me treading that water. Instead, we’re going to start with the freshest soft-shell blue crab recipes imaginable, and go on to some crabmeat specialties. Crab is such a delicacy that it is a shame to throw any of it away. So we end with a recipe for a delicious Maryland crab soup that can be made from extra crabmeat you may have on hand, or even leftover crab cakes (heaven forbid).
Crabmeat Recipes: Fresh crabmeat has a sweet, almost grassy smell. “Jumbo lump” is the most expensive, but also has the largest whole pieces of white crabmeat. This is the kind to buy for company crab cakes. “Backfin” is good for casseroles and for family crab cakes. “Special” and “Claw” meat both work well for soups. “Cocktail claw” is for dipping in cocktail sauce. Pasteurized, refrigerated crabmeat can be acceptable, but check its origin and expiration date. Rule of thumb: a 1-pound container will serve 6 people generously as an entrée.