Saturday, June 09, 2007

Lunch Lessons

WARNING: The following post contains some slightly graphic descriptions of food preparation that may offend some readers.

If you are feeling disconnected from your food, I strongly suggest making softshell crabs. Or maybe not.
In a purchase of passion I splurged on a pair of local softshell crabs from the lovely folks at PE & DD Seafood at the USQ Greenmarket today. I had gone strictly to visit my friend who is currently working on Keith Stewart's farm upstate and was down for her day of garlic-selling. I told myself repeatedly that I still had a large variety of ingredients at home, and tried to put blinders on. But I couldn't help it. The things that have come into availability this week were too tempting, so I got some baby fennel from Paffenroth Gardens($1/bunch), a tomato and a quart of milk. And I have been wanting to cook softshells, as I never had before, and after not cooking anything yesterday(besides the buffet dinner party I "catered" for a friend) I felt I owed it to myself. At least that is what I keep telling myself.
So I brought everything home and started cooking. I knew I wanted to fry the crabs, which is really the only way to cook them. So I made a salad to balance out the fried-ness. French Crisp lettuce, peas, and French Breakfast radishes, plus some crispy fried shallots. I made a double-function mayonnaise that would serve as a salad dressing and a condiment for the crabs - egg yolk, canola oil, walnut oil, lime juice, mustard, salt, pepper.
I readied the egg white/milk and cornmeal/flour coating components.
And then the test.
I've cleaned fish, dealt with headed poultry, deboned, removed offal, etc. But this was the most "in touch" I have ever been with a thing I was going to eat.
The crabs were sitting next to each other on the counter, motioning with their claws, looking around, breathing out bubbles. Alive. Watching me ready the platform, checking the noose, testing the gallows. I should have been wearing a hood.
I took out my heaviest knife...

A BRIEF RESPITE: On my walk home yesterday, I found pineapple grass(chamomile), lamb's quarter(AKA wild spinach), and purslane growing out of cracks in the sidewalk in just one block of McDonald Ave. Who knew?

I flipped the first crab onto its back and with the knife quickly removed the front section of its body(eyes? mouth? brain?). The legs got a little wild at this point. I stuck my fingers under the shell on both sides of the body and removed the gills(or lungs? I'll say gills) and then pulled a bit of toughish tissue from the underside of the tail. One done. At this point I am not sure how I feel about the whole thing. It is different to say you are ok with this sort of procedure when you aren't actually doing it. But now I am doing it.
I repeat the procedure on the second crab. I heat the oil in the pan. The crabs go in the egg/milk(to which I have added a bit of chili paste), then the cornmeal/flour, then the oil. The spatter like crazy. I duck and grab the spatter gaurd. They turn a beautiful golden brown. I plate them with the salad. It looks like this:

It is delicious. Transcendentally delicious. The best crab, softshell or otherwise, I have ever eaten. The shell and coating are perfectly crisp, the meat sweet and a little briny and moist and flakes into beautiful petals the way it should. The claws and legs are unbelievable. I would eat a bowl of them at the movies instead of popcorn. The mayonnaise works really well. A little dab is just enough, creamy with a bit of heat from the mustard. The salad is refreshing: crisp radishes, great lettuce(from Keith's), and peas that are intense little bursts of pure sweet spring. I'll admit that I ate it a little too fast. Not that it made my stomach hurt or anything, I just wish I had savored it a bit more.
But now I know what it takes. And as far as becoming more connected with what I eat, I just got a little more connected. Because if you are going to eat it, you have to know what it took to get to your plate.


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