So after my birthday feast a couple of weeks ago, I've been wanting to eat crab again. This was helped by the fact that my uncle asked me for a scallion and ginger crab recipe, because he wanted to make it. I've made the dish once before, but it was years ago and I remembered the recipe being long and unnecessarily complicated. I did another search and there were many simpler recipes available that sounded pretty good. I sent him one that looked promising, and he reported back (with pictures) that it was indeed good. Seeing those pictures made me want crab even more -- and to make it scallion and ginger style!
If you've ever been to a Chinese seafood restaurant, chances are you've ordered -- or have seen others order -- scallion and ginger crab. It's a very common, traditional dish. And it always begins with a live crab. No self-respecting Chinese restaurant would dare serve this dish made from a crab that hadn't just been plucked, splashing and limbs flailing, from its tank right in the restaurant. The restaurant's patrons are far too discerning about their seafood. Flesh from live seafood is firmer and sweeter than its already-dead counterparts, which has been decomposing for who knows how long. Cooking seafood at home holds to the same principles. It's also usually less expensive than getting seafood at a restaurant -- though of course at home you're also responsible for killing and cooking it.
Your average American consumer is so squeamish about live food (or in some cases, even bones in meat, to remind them that it had once been part of an animal -- is this why Americans typically also prefer breast meat, which is usually sold boneless?), that the lower-quality seafood is an okay trade off for them. Indeed, if you can't tell the difference by taste or texture, then saving yourself the trouble of slaughtering your own seafood is probably the way to go. And I'm not judging. Even if it tasted super fabulous, I'm not sure I could slaughter a chicken -- but then, I've never been tested.
In any case, I required a live crab if I were to make this dish. Western supermarkets sell their seafood at notoriously high prices, but even if I were willing to pay those prices, the chances of finding a Safeway or Albertsons -- or any other Western supermarket -- with live crab would be very slim. The only place assured of carrying live seafood is that which caters to live seafood connoisseurs: a Chinese supermarket. Which, near me, means 99 Ranch. The day I went the Dungeness crab had gone up in price from $3.99 to $4.99 from just a couple weeks ago. Originally I had planned to make two crabs, as the recipe called for, but at that price I was only willing to buy one. I did see, however, that live Maine lobsters were on sale for $7.99, which is just about as low as I've ever seen. So I also got a 2-lb lobster. For both of these items I paid just a fraction of what I probably would have had to pay for one of them at a seafood restaurant.
I knew what I was going to do with the crab, but what about the lobster? I decided to go the easy route and prepare it the way I prefer my lobster -- boiled in salt water and served with drawn butter. There's no better way to eat it. Plus setting a salted pot of water to boil and tossing the lobster in could not be simpler.
Then came the crab (and the part I warned you about at the beginning of this post). The easy method of cooking crab is also to throw it in a pot of boiling water, but that wouldn't be possible with the way I wanted to go it. I needed to section it raw. My uncle had tried to suffocate his in a plastic bag in a fridge for 4 hours, to no avail. He finally had to take a knife to it, slasher style. I'd have to do it the way my mom does it -- which is no less horrible but hopefully allows the crab to suffer less. Her method involves taking off its shell (head) while it's still alive. With a swift and steady hand, there's very little time for the crab to suffer (and I believe this is how predators in the ocean eat crab -- possibly they aren't even that nice and just start munching on the limbs while the poor thing is still alive).
First, fortify yourself with your liquid of choice. I chose a salted caramel hot chocolate from Starbucks. Yours may involve alcohol of some kind.
Next, I usually put a chopstick into each of the crab's claws so that it has something to grab onto that's not me.
When you start pulling on its head, it naturally starts to get distressed, so you need to do this as quickly as possible, or you'll just traumatize you both. The crab should be lying right-side up, on its belly, with its back to you. I'm left handed, so what I do is I hold down its legs/body on the left side with my left hand, and pull on the shell with my right hand. The crab is usually narrower here so you should be able to get a decent hold. Get a grip that you're comfortable with. Some shells come off quite easily; others are stubborn and require some force. Don't worry about cracking the shell, I've never had this happen. As long as you keep up the pressure, the shell will lift eventually.
At this point, you might want to walk away for a few moments, take a breather, get your racing heart under control. It also allows for any last reflexes the dead crab's limbs may have to expend themselves, saving you the sensation that it's still moving while you're sectioning it. Sometimes you may have to wait quite awhile -- I've done this several times so it doesn't bother me as much anymore.
However long you wait (preferably not more than a few minutes, as you don't want the flesh to decompose -- allowing it to do so would be to negate the whole point of having gotten it live in the first place), you'll have to clean and section it eventually. You can do this with a strong butcher's knife, or as I prefer, simply pull it apart with your hands. Before sectioning I always clean the crab, pulling the little "tab" at the bottom and removing that, dumping out any extra water, pulling off the gills and other iffy bits, etc. I leave the "crab butter," or more the more anatomically correct term "gonads" in, because I love it. That's the orangey-yellow stuff. It's considered a delicacy in many countries, but if you don't like it, I've read that you can clean a crab simply by rinsing it under cold water. I think it's delicious.
When you're ready to section the crab, grab its legs on both sides and put your thumbs right down the middle of its body and apply pressure. It should break in half cleanly. You can then chop or pull until each leg is its own section, which may or may not be attached to the body. I just do what the crab allows me to do and go with its natural breaks.
Now that you've got your crab ready, the rest of it is easy. Chop up some ginger, garlic and scallions (a lot of it!), mix some chicken broth with soy sauce, sugar and sherry, and prepare a slurry of water and cornstarch.
Heat up some oil, and when it's ready, toss in the scallions, ginger, and garlic.
Stir fry that for a bit, then add in the chicken broth, soy sauce, sugar and sherry.
Next, add in the sectioned crab.
It doesn't take long to cook, so pretty soon your house will be filled with the fragrant scent of ginger, and green onions, and crab. Eating it is even better -- makes all the work you did totally worth it. Dip pieces of crab meat into the sauce, and eat the scallions whole, as they've become so tender and infused with the flavor of the stir fry that they're almost the best part.
Ginger and Scallion Crab
- 1 live crab, roughly 2 pounds
- 3 tbsp cooking oil
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp fresh ginger, chopped
- 1 bunch of scallions (green onions), sliced -- 1-inch strips for the leafy part, then finely chop the stem (see photo above)
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp sherry
- 1/4 tsp sugar
- dash sesame oil (optional)
- 1 tbsp cornstarch
- 3 tbsp water
- Clean and section crab as described above. If you really can't do it, I think 99 Ranch or whichever supermarket you get the crab from is probably willing to kill/section it for you. If you opt for this, make sure you cook the crab as soon as you get home.
- Heat cooking oil in a wok. When it's ready, add the ginger, garlic and scallions, and stir-fry for about 20 seconds.
- Measure out the chicken stock. Mix in the soy sauce, sherry, sugar and sesame oil (if using) and pour the mixture into the wok. Bring it to a boil.
- Add in the sectioned crab. Stir fry to coat the pieces. Cover the wok and lower the heat, then cook until the crab shells turn red, about 5-10 minutes.
- Create a slurry with the water and cornstarch, then stir it into the crab.
- Bring everything back to a boil, stir frying a bit to make sure the heat is being evenly distributed and each crab piece is being coated with sauce. Serve while hot with a crab cracker and an empty bowl for the shells.
Quick recipe: Throw all your discarded shells into a large stockpot. Fill it with water, about an inch over the shells. Throw in 2 ribs of celery, cut into large chunks. Also toss in a few slices of ginger. Heat until it boils, then turn down heat and let it simmer for two hours. At the end of those two hours, pour in about half a cup of white wine. Let it simmer for another half hour. Line a strainer with cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl or another soup pot. Carefully pour or ladle the soup into the strainer, discarding all the solids. You may or may not want to salt the stock. If you're making a bisque, reserve 2 cups of the shellfish stock. Heat it until it's simmering, then add a tablespoon of tomato paste. Mix until it's well blended into the stock. Pour in two tablespoons of white wine. Add 1/2 cup of heavy cream to the soup and heat until it's hot enough to serve -- you want to avoid boiling it. This is a very lazy way to make bisque, which is why it suits me. When I want something a little more authentic that involves butter and shallots and a blender, this is a good recipe. Usually I don't have any leftover meat to use in the soup, but it's just as well since the shellfish stock is usually quite rich and strong -- it's amazing how much flavor those shells still have.
For dessert, why not try a pear and hazelnut frangipane tart? This is the one I finally made on my own, and I think it came out fairly well for a first-time attempt. Tasted just as I remembered. Just need to work on the aesthetics! I used home-rendered lard in place of the vegetable shortening the recipe calls for. Healthier and even more delicious!