Have you ever tried to jot down a recipe while standing over the shoulder of a relative who was whipping things up at the stove? Or better yet, have you ever attempted to decode your grandmother’s shorthand from a stack of decades-old, splattered and stained recipe cards? If so, kudos to you because I know that means you’ve at least attempted to preserve a family recipe that meant something to you. Well, that’s what I do with all my spare time. I work tirelessly collecting, organizing, testing, writing, photographing and posting family recipes. It’s the easiest and most enjoyable way for me to preserve my family’s culinary heritage and it’s the only way to insure that the dishes I treasure most are not forgotten. That passion for “preserving and passing on” is what lead to this blog and all the yet-to-get-to-family-favorites are what keep it (and me) going. But the process, however enjoyable, has its challenges.
To get a generation’s old family recipe into a user-friendly format, I have to breakdown and reconstruct both the ingredient list and the instructions. On the ingredient front, that usually means cooking a dish several times before “a little bit of this” and “a sprinkle of that” can be translated into exact measurements. I love that part. Compiling the instructions? Not so much. That second part of recipe writing is the toughest because it’s where I bear the burden of getting the “how-to” down clearly and concisely while maintaining the integrity of the dish–respecting its original flavors and honoring the how, when and why it was created. Tough to do when dealing with classic New Orleans recipes that involve ingredients or time-honored cooking methods unfamiliar to many. My mom’s stuffed crabs recipe is one of those.
My mom’s recipe is the best representation of a New Orleans stuffed crab–chunks of crabmeat resourcefully and delightfully repurposed with delicate seasoning vegetables, rich butter and moist French bread. In order to get the dish just so, you need to commit to her process. That involves boiling a dozen or so blue crabs in seasoned water, picking those crabs by hand, cleaning and sterilizing the crab shells (for stuffing), reviving days old French bread from its stale state by patiently letting it sit under cold, running water, preparing the filling, stuffing the shells and baking the finished product. It’s time-consuming but worth every minute. I embrace the process wholeheartedly because it produces the most delectable stuffed crabs and it’s also a great example of my mother’s fortitude. You see, during tough times my mom would prepare these crabs to earn extra money for our family. When I was little, my dad worked as a shrimper. Many of his trawls would also bring in blue crabs. After he boiled the crabs and before my mom left the house for her real job, she would work her fingers raw picking crabmeat for stuffed crabs that she would then sell to friends and neighbors for a buck a piece. Even back in the early 70s, that was crazy-cheap. And even back then, I recognized how hard my mother worked for our family!
For those of you not so emotionally attached to this or any of my other recipes, I typically provide shortcuts and variations. Those abbreviated versions work great when you don’t have much time on your hands or if you’re unable to find certain ingredients or cooking tools. But just know that if you’re looking to capture the true character and spirit of those dishes, you need to prepare them the traditional way. You won’t be disappointed!
Stuffed Crabs Recipe
1 dozen well-seasoned boiled blue crabs*
2 sticks unsalted butter, divided
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups cubed stale French bread (or other firm, crusty bread)
1 tablespoon parsley flakes
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt and black pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon Lea & Perrins (Worcestershire Sauce)
2 tablespoons Italian bread crumbs
Pick crabs, reserving meat, fat and 8 back shells. Cover and refrigerate crabmeat and fat while you clean the shells. To clean shells: scrape insides and break off the mouths, eyes and antennae; rinse inside and out under cold running water; place in a pot of cold water; bring to a boil; cook for 15-20 minutes to sterilize; drain; and cool. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt 1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) butter. Add the onions, green onions and garlic; saute until tender, 3-5 minutes. Meanwhile, place bread in a colander under cold running water until moist; drain and squeeze excess water from bread. Add moistened bread to onion mixture; break up large pieces with the side of a spoon. Reduce heat to medium-low and fold in crabmeat. Add parsley and cayenne pepper. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Remove from heat. In a small bowl, beat egg with Lea & Perrins; gently stir into crabmeat mixture. Spoon mixture evenly into crab shells.** Sprinkle tops with bread crumbs and dot each crab with a portion of the reserved 4 tablespoons of butter. Bake until heated through and golden brown on top, about 15. Serve warm. Makes 4-8 servings.
*Substitute one pound of store-bought crabmeat seasoned with 1 1/2 teaspoons Creole seasoning, 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice and an extra pinch of cayenne pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings before mixing in raw egg.
**Alternatively, spoon into disposable aluminum crab shells (available online) or individual ramekins.