21 April 2015

Crab and Samphire Linguine

Crab, samphire and other ingredients
At the weekend I went down to my local fishmongers, Brighton and Newhaven Fish Sales, and was excited to see the first of the new season’s samphire. I couldn’t resist. I also bought a crab, and decided to make crab and samphire linguine. It seemed the perfect supper on a sunny spring day.
Samphire is a sort of succulent, which grows in salt marshes. It is in season from about mid spring to August, and has a pleasant slightly salty flavour. It is delicious lightly steamed with a little good quality olive oil, and a twist of pepper, and works well with fish. In the spring it is great raw, but tends to get a bit woody as the season goes by.  It can be foraged, although most of the places I know where it grows tend to be on the side of rivers with heavy marine traffic or in nature reserves. I avoid picking the former because of the risk of pollutants and the latter because, well, foraging from nature reserves seems to be frowned upon, for good reason.

I am a big fan of crab. In good condition, crab meat will give its flashier cousin lobster a good run for its money, at about a quarter of the price by weight. The key to good crab is the freshness of the meat. To this end, if you aren’t all that squeamish, the best option is to buy a live crab and despatch and cook it yourself. Killing the crab is not a lot of fun, but it is a salutary reminder to us non-vegetarians that every animal we eat has been killed by someone. For a society that is now fairly removed from the slaughter of our food, it's probably healthy to be reminded of this now and then. 

When buying live crabs, as with lobsters, the livelier the better. Ideally your fishmonger will keep their crabs in a water tank, as they do at BNFS, although some keep them on the ice slab. If you don’t fancy killing the crab yourself, or are in a hurry, you can buy a ready-cooked or dressed crab. In which case, it is probably worth asking your fishmonger when it was cooked, remembering that the fresher the better, as the quality of the meat starts to deteriorate as soon as the crab has been killed and cooked.

Ingredients (to feed 2)

1 med live crab (approx 750g), or cooked/dressed equivalent
1 handful samphire (approx. 100g)
200g linguine
1 garlic clove
½ red chilli pepper, deseeded
5 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 small glass dry white wine
Juice from ½ lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Killing and cooking the crab

First, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. You need to be able to fit the crab into the pan. A stock pan is ideal. 

It is kind to kill the crab before plunging it into the boiling water. What follows is apparently the most humane way of killing a crab in a domestic kitchen. Turn the crab on its back. Take a metal skewer and insert it between the crab’s eyes into its body. Then lift up the crab’s tail flap. A knife will help you to do this. You will find a small hole under the tail flap. Insert the skewer here and push down hard. This will kill the crab fairly fast, but it will twitch for a while. This is the least enjoyable part of the whole process, and first-timers may want a stiff gin and tonic or a strong espresso to get over the whole thing.

Once the pan has come to the boil, add the crab. Bring back to the boil, then turn the pan down to a medium heat and cook the crab for about 15-20 minutes (longer if you have a large crab).
Once cooked, take the crab out the water and allow to cool.

Picking the crab meat
The first time I picked a crab myself was on a surf trip in a seafood restaurant in Brittany. The maitre d’ stood over me (in a nice way), and showed me how to get all the meat out of the crab. It was a useful lesson, in a slightly intimidating French kind of way.

One of the best illustrated descriptions of how to pick the meat from a crab can be found in Rick Stein’s great book Seafood, which is my go-to cook book on all matters seafood. Here is a brief outline of the process.

Start by breaking off the claws and the legs including the knuckle joint. Then break off the tail flap.

You should be able to see a groove between the body and the shell. Insert a large knife and twist to release the shell. You can then push the body away from the shell.

There are a number of grey feathery gills along the body, known as dead man's fingers, pull them off and discard.

Breaking down the crab

Lift the mouth section out of the shell along with the stomach sac. You will find some brown meat in the shell and the centre of the body. Scoop this out with a spoon and set to one side.

Cut the body section in half. Use a crab pick to pick out the white meat from all the channels in the body.

Use a pair of nut crackers to crack the claws. Pull out the white meat, making sure to remove the flat piece of bone from the centre of the claw. Then crack the larger sections of the legs, and use the pick to pull out the white meat.

White and brown meat from the crab

Keep the crab shell and other detritus for stock (you can freeze it for later use).  Shellfish makes a great flavour stock.

The linguine and sauce

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil.

Put a large frying pan over a lowish heat. Add a little olive oil. Finely chop the garlic and chilli pepper and add to the sauce pan. Allow to soften for about a minute.

Halve the cherry tomatoes and add to the frying pan. Allow to soften, taking care not to burn the garlic.

At about this point, and once the water has come to the boil, add the linguine. Cook until al dente, about a minute less than shown on the packet, stirring occasionally.

Once the tomato, garlic and chilli have softened (but not burned), add the glass of white wine. Turn up the heat and allow some of the wine to boil away.

Add the brown crab meat to the frying pan, and stir to mix it into the wine.

Wash the samphire thoroughly, and remove any woody bits. Add the samphire and lemon juice to the pan, and turn down to a medium heat. 

Allow the samphire to sweat down a little. If the sauce starts to look dry, add a little of the cooking water from the pasta.

Once the linguine has cooked, drain it and add it back to the cooking pan.

Stir some good quality extra virgin olive oil into the sauce and a twist of pepper. Add the white crab meat, and immediately add the sauce to the pasta pan. Because of the saltiness of the samphire, you shouldn’t need to add any more salt. 

Combine the linguine with the sauce and serve.

Crab and samphire linguine
This dish is perfect with a crisp minerally dry white wine, like a muscadet or Gavi di Gavi. Sit back, and enjoy the fact that it is spring.

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