Appeared in 3/96 issue of "Slow, the magazine of the slow food movement"
Steamed Crab Story
John's "trouble free" steamed crab recipe (which makes a lie of the "you wouldn't eat X if you had to kill it yourself" argument).
Every once in a blue moon I like to entertain. I buy some exotic ingredients and try a new recipe for a few people. Last night's menu was Filipino style Paella (an originally Spanish rice, seafood and meat stew). I took off early (hey- no faculty read this right?) and went to Benkowitz seafood in the strip to get some squid, clams, shrimp and crabs. The squid, clams and shrimp were not a problem (all purchased dead- since I didn't feel like purging clams).
The crabs were a problem. I directed the woman helping me to two of the feistier ones in the tank (probably in better shape than the sluggish ones). We boxed them up and I proceeded to drive home (they made cute little scraping sounds trying to climb out of the box the whole time). Get home dump the crabs out of the box into one sink each and spray them with a little water (I figure even though it is fresh water it might help their gills). I put off cooking the crabs until last (as they need much less cooking time than the chicken, pork, sausage, and rice that goes into the Paella).
Finally it is time to do the crabs. I have them flipped on their backs in separate sinks (I separated the crabs because one was acting aggressive), which makes them look like the face-grabbing monsters from Alien. The cookbook says to kill them by "putting an ice-pick through the central nervous system" which can be gotten at from the bottom of the crab- dead (haha) center between the claws and first legs. I first go after the slower one of the two. I touch correct point of the under-shell with a very thin fillet knife and the legs of the crab convulsively reach up for my hand- just like in Alien. After about seven tries I work up the nerve to hold the crab down with a meat tenderizer and drive the fillet knife through the central nervous system. The crab gives one of those really repulsive dying spasms with means all legs again lunge up at me one last time- but faster. I back off take some breaths and poke at the legs with the knife. The legs move a little but the crab seems to be dead. By this time I really don't have the nerve to do the second, faster, crab. With extreme effort of will I touch the underside of the second crab with the fillet knife- it lunges worse than the other one ever did, the "dead" crab gives an uncoordinated twitch in sympathy and something makes a rattling sound at the front door. I rush the front door knife in one hand heavy mallet in the other only to run into a horrified Nina a shocked Vince, both just arrived.
Most of the meal is ready, everyone has arrived, the steamer is boiling furiously and one crab is already dead- no more fooling around, I have to do the other one. After about 13 attempts I hold the crab down and drive the fillet knife through the magic spot. The crab is really pissed now- either the cookbook lied, or I missed or crabs don't need their "central nervous system" for much. I hit the knife with the mallet (so I don't have to reach near the wriggling legs) which drives it all the way through the crab- piercing the top shell underneath. The vote from the peanut gallery is to forget steaming, boil some water and poach the bastard right in the sink (no one going for the St. Francis medallion tonight). While boiling water I smack the embedded knife with a a few times plastic serving spoon to see what would happen if I tried to remove the knife. The crab legs come up, I panic, smack the knife and shatter the spoon. I have had enough of this so I put the first crab in one layer of the steamer (using another pair of spoons)- it doesn't fit too well but it is in. I pick up the second crab by the knife and place it on the next layer of the steamer. The bottom ("dead") crab keeps sticking an occasional leg out (which I poke back in). The top crab seems somewhat less feisty but now the knife won't come out (it is stuck in the upper shell). I hold the crab down with the mallet and pull- no luck. Finally I lift the grab up and drop it into the stainless steel sink- which dislodged the knife. I scoop the second crab into the top level of the steamer and slam the top down. There is still some wriggling going on- but everything is manageable. I wait and the wriggling stops- okay everybody who should be is dead.
I transfer the steaming baskets to the boiling water. Look back and the steamer lid is trying to crawl away. Lunge to hold it down (ow- steam) finally use the mallet to weigh it down. Leave the kitchen, take some breaths, steamer is still struggling. Nina and Vince and discussing becoming vegetarians- couple of assertive motions with the fillet knife and they fall back in line. Leave the steamer alone for 8 minutes (as directed in the cookbook), split latterly with a heavy cleaver, remove top shell and scoop out the gills and all the icky green stuff.
Trouble free steamed crab.