Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mama Ren's famous blue crabs

As a child, this was one of my favorite dishes. I am a huge fan of all things aquatic, I enjoy keeping them, eating them, and collecting replicas of them. I especially love crustaceans, but more to eat than to keep as pets. My mom makes me this simple dish when I go home in the winter, during the prime blue crab season. Chinese people eat blue crab in the winter because that's when the female crabs have the most uh... reproductive goodies. We call it "wang." It's the yellow and orange rich and flavorful pieces found inside the shell, and nestled between the two body sections. Delicious!

Justin and I returned from a visit to Michigan, where sadly we did not eat blue crab. My mother had a hard time finding a fresh catch during our brief visit. Luckily for us, our trip to the Chinese Supermarket (on N. Lamar) yielded some live blue crabs! We have also found them live at Fiesta. There are several tricks to finding good crabs. First, make sure you pick the female ones, the male ones don't have the same "wang," and personally, I don't find their "wang" as good. Crabs are sexed by their flap on the bottom of their body. This is what a female crab looks like.

You also want to make sure that your crab is alive and kicking. Dead crabs lose the springy texture in their meat, and taste pasty and can also smell bad. Make sure that all your crabs are alive when they hit the pot. My mom also says to look for the crabs that are the dirtiest, I guess that means they have been around long enough to reach maturity, and are more likely to have "wang." In addition, make sure that each crab feels nice and heavy, which suggests dense succulent meat. Pick up a few crabs for comparison purposes.

After you bring your crabs home (I suggest 3 crabs per person), keep them in the refrigerator until about an hour before cooking, at which point, you can transfer them to the sink with a few inches of cold water. Soak them for about half an hour. Next, use a small brush and brush them under running water, make sure you get their undersides, that's where they are usually most dirty. Watch out for those pinchers!

While you are cleaning your crabs, boil an inch of water in a large but shallow pot with a few slices of fresh ginger. Once your water boils, you can transfer your crabs into the pot. Cover and turn the heat down to medium. Cook for 10-15 minutes. They should be nice and red when they are fully cooked.

Eating them is the tricky part! First you rip off the flap that covers their belly (the one that tells you they're female), then you carefully separate the shell from the rest of the body. If you are lucky, your crab will be bursting with delicious "wang" and should look like mine. But don't worry if your crab doesn't have "wang," it will still be delicious!

My family's traditional accompaniment is to dip the crab in a ginger vinegar sauce. You simmer about 1/3 cup balsamic (or chinese) vinegar with 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons sugar and diced ginger (about the size of a quarter). Be careful to not let your mixture boil, you just want to melt the sugar. I like to pour the sauce into the shell of my crab and use that as a built-in dipping bowl. Just snap the body of your crab in half, remove the legs, and use a toothpick to extract the meat. Enjoy!