(Photo credit: from Diane at White on Rice)
There’s something really beautiful about having the confidence and skill to improvise. Musicians do it when they see beyond the black notes on a chart and close their eyes to jam. It’s the same with creating something impromptu in the kitchen; it comes when the cook understands more than just the basic chemistry of cooking and ratios and starts to feel their way into a never-before-created dish.
Like a musician that can hear a tune unwind in their head, a chef must be able to cook and taste a dish before ever slicing into product or turning on the stove. The day I cooked crab soup from beginning to end without ever boiling a pot of water, was the day I realized I had started to think like a chef.
Take me to the bridge!
I have my friend Chef Brian—sous chef of Hatfield’s restaurant–to thank for my recent transformation. Over the past year he’s taken me under his wing, described the way he creates dishes and has talked me through the way prepares every ingredient. Thanks to his willingness to share culinary secrets, he’s given me information that can only learned by spending thousands of hours in the kitchen.
I recently invited a handful of my very best culinary friends to our Los Angeles apartment for a night of eating. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate our love of food than with a casual dinner that celebrated the bounty of California’s farmers’ market featuring freshly caught Santa Barbara crab. With the Hungry Cat Crab Fest–one of my favorite LA dining events–as inspiration, I began to put together my menu.
Standing in the Hollywood Farmer’s Market I saw it all so clearly. I would serve a multi course dinner, starting with a cucumber and lime cocktail. I’d begin with a savory fruit salad (Suzanne Goin style), follow it with a Maryland-style crab soup and corn bread, and finale with a huge Santa Barbara rock crab, mallets and plenty of corn on the cob. I felt confident about the salad and the simple boiling of the crab and ears of corn–but the soup was a different matter completely.
I didn’t have a recipe, nor any hope of finding one. I asked my boss (Suzanne Goin herself) if she had a copy of her husband—Chef David Lentz‘s—soup recipe but she didn’t. Oddly confident I thought, I can figure this out.
I began to doubt my abilities the moment after I had navigated through the crowded Hollywood Farmers Market with bags stuffed full of fresh produce and angry Santa Barbara crabs. Suddenly my mind was flooded with an imagined future of disappointed food bloggers politely eating a watery crab soup.
“My god,” I gasped. “Can you tell me how to make crab soup?”
With my hands occupied with heavy sacks, he ran down the basic procedures of preparing a Maryland crab soup. Unable to take notes, I visualized the cooking of the crab, the messy job of pulling out the crustacean’s sweet meat, the sautéing of the shells and cooking the bodies down with mirepoix to create a rich stock. I saw it all as I repeated the steps all over again at the stove. Thanks to Brian’s advice and my newfound confidence, the soup was a huge success.
Like a family recipe that is shared through generations, this soup is created by feel and instinct. I offer you the recipe here, as it was described to me at the Hollywood Farmer’s market.
An Improvised Maryland Crab Soup
As shared by Brian Best, Hatfield’s Restaurant
4 large Santa Barbara Crabs
1 large bunch of carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large bunch of celery, chopped
3 large onions, chopped
6 ears of corn
fingerling potatoes (1-2 pounds), peeled and chopped into small pieces
2 small cans of tomato paste
2 dried ancho chili
2-3 tbl Harissa from a tube
Vegetable oil for cooking
Olive oil for cooking
enough water to cover the crabs
left over vegetable scraps or herbs
Crabs should be alive before you cook them. Leave crabs in the coolest section of the refrigerator until you are ready to cook them. Putting them in the freezer for 10 minutes before you cook them will make the cooking process less difficult for the crabs (and you).
Fill a large pot with water. Bring the water to a boil. Add the crab one at a time to make sure they are fully submerged in the water. Cook separately if necessary. Depending on the size of the crab, cook for 12-15 minutes but no more. Remove the crab from the water, let cool. Reserve the cooking liquid if possible.
Cover your worktable with newspapers. This is going to be messy. Using a mallet, hammer, or crackers, break the claws to reveal meat. Using chopsticks or picks, remove the meat. Put crab meat in one bowl and the shells in another. Rinse crab’s top shell of the dark internal liquid, as this juice will make the soup bitter. Break down the top shell with a hammer.
Using the same large pot, heat pot over high heat with a little vegetable oil. Add an acho chili or two, the crab shells and pieces. Stir crab shells frequently, making sure to heat all the shells evenly. The crab shells should start to smell of the sea, about 10-15 minutes.
In a separate pan, add half of chopped onion, carrot and celery to a hot pan with olive oil. Sautee down until the mirepoix ingredients begin to soften. Add to the sautéing crab shells. Add herbs and any vegetable scraps you may have. Add cooking liquid or water to the crab shells, being careful to add just enough to cover the shells. Simmer on stove for an hour. Taste. Drain the crab stock with the finest sieve you have. Cook down the stock for 30 minutes to an hour.
In your sautee pan, cook down the remaining mirepoix ingredients until soft. Add softened mirepoix and potatoes to stock. Remove the corn from the cob and add to stock. Add tomato paste, stir to dissolve. Add crab meat. Cook down for 30-60 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Add Harrissa if you desire more spice. Serve immediately or freeze.
Serve with cornbread.