A Reluctant Crustacean Killer and The Curious Case of Delicious Crab Soup

Making bisque the right way isn't for the faint of heart, but the results are well worth the work, and it can be in stages. This is about the most beautiful crab bisque you will ever savor.

When it comes to killing (unless you count mosquitoes) I'm a wuss. I can't even stamp out a palmetto bug (cockroach). Once, when I was 12, while retrieving the mail from our mailbox in Florida, a pretty green lizard leaped out from the box into my face. Terrified, I slammed the door shut, automatically decapitating the poor little guy. I wept for hours, assembling his remains, burying them, and building a small cross out of twigs for his grave. At Le Cordon Bleu, on the day we were making eel stew, yours truly was handed one of the few live ones that slithered on my board as I tried, and failed, to cut off its huge head. Chef Jackie Martin had to rescue me, screaming and faint having somehow flown to the corner across the room, wrap the eel's head with string, and bang it against the stainless steel cupboards until it was lifeless. Twenty years later, I'm not sure I've yet recovered from that one.

Dogs, cats, cows, pigs, lambs, goats, horses, I love them all, really truly all of God's creatures (though I still struggle with snakes). But it's those spiny, ancient creatures of the cold Atlantic waters for which I have a special affinity and sympathy. I think it's because I grew up outside of Boston and summers were always spent in Maine where lobster, steamers, and drawn butter were regularly served to sate our young bodies, spent from hours playing in the sea. How I loved eating lobster then, as I do now, I just hated the killing part, and I still do. That's why the little hypocrite in me lets someone else do it, though I did once rescue and release a 60 year-old lobster from the steamer tank into the waters off Rockport, MA, which somewhat allays my extreme lobster killer guilt.

All of that changed a few days ago. I was preparing to make and test lobster and a crab bisque recipes for The French Cook: Soupes et Daubes (Gibbs Smith, September 2014). 

Impossibly torn at the sheer joy of savoring one of my favorite things, a delicious seafood bisque (or two), and the sheer horror of the inevitable: I was about to become a lobster and crab killer. Because their internal organs and flesh rot very quickly and bacteria mounts fast when dead, these crustaceans really must be cooked alive. And, in the case of a bisque (of any kind), the shells are a crucial part of building the flavor. Shells from a cooked lobster or crab, don't give off the same flavor as shells from an  uncooked lobster or crab.

So, off I went to my affable advisors at the seafood counter of the Harris Teeter in downtown, eye-balling a couple of handsome, pre-cooked lobsters. Full of hope, I told Doug what I was making and asked him (knowing the answer) if I could just use the pre-cooked guys. "No, you have to use live," he said, resolutely.

Next stop, Crosby's Seafood, uptown. The kind lady there plucked two, 1 3/4 pound beauties out of the tank (I couldn't stop thinking about their already traumatic journey from the bottom of the craggy, cold Maine waters, to a trap, to a plane, and once again to this tank in South Carolina), and now she was putting them in a paper bag. I asked her to double the paper (images of that eel enforcing images of panicked pinchers breaking through), which she did, also wrapping it with plastic. Same for the poor crabs, though I felt less sorry for them somehow, for reasons I can't explain. I confessed my concerns about limiting their pain, erasing it if at all possible. I couldn't bring myself to do the one method Doug had recommended (sticking a knife between their primal, groping black eyes). She suggested something else. Put them in a freezer for about 30 minutes. This "puts them to sleep," so going into the pot is less traumatic.

Hopeful, I asked my neighbor Lucie to house the crustaceans in her large freezer, while I prepared to cook them. I put on two large pots of salted water to boil. By now trembling, I decided to start with the crabs because they were smaller and it would be faster. Well, that part proved true, but one of them almost successfully crawled out of the pot. I was able to get him back in there. Less than 10 minutes later, it was over. Now, it was time to tackle the big boys. It didn't go well and I hesitate to explain it in detail (I didn't even take pictures because I didn't want to exploit them), but suffice to say, the first guy didn't want to go in and he wasn't asleep. I had to take a 15 minute time out to breathe and calm down, but now I was ready to make bisque.

The recipe that follows is made from fresh blue crab, thickened with a flour roux, and finished with cream, sweet lump crab meat, fresh thyme, and Old Bay Seasoning. It is sublime! If you, like me, suffer from crustacean killer guilt, keep in mind that you are using every single part of these creatures and absolutely nothing goes to waste. It's purely crustacean bisque and so delicious it will make you cry, but in a good way. It may seem like a lot of work, and frankly, it is, but you can do it in three parts:

1) Steam the crabs and strain the fumet base.
2) Make the bisque base, strain and store overnight in the fridge.
3) Finish the bisque in minutes the next day.

Blue Crab Bisque with Old Bay Seasoning, Vermouth and Fresh Thyme
(Makes 6 to 8 servings)

To steam the crabs for the fumet base:
8 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
6 live blue crabs (about 3 pounds total)

For the bisque base:
4 tablespoons butter
1 leek, trimmed to 1"- above white base, halved horizontally, well rinsed, and finely chopped
1 onion, peeled, halved, and finely chopped
2 stalks celery, trimmed, and finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Reserved shells from the crab fumet
3/4 cup dry vermouth
2 bay leaves

To finish the bisque:
2 tablespoons butter
1 large shallot, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
3  tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup heavy cream
8 ounces (1 cup) lumb crab meat
Reserved meat from steamed blue crabs (about 1/4 cup)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves

Start with the fumet base. Bring the water and salt up to a vigorous boil in a 5 1/2 quart Dutch oven or similarly- sized pot. Add the crabs all at once. Cover, and reduce to high simmer over medium high heat. Cook for eight minutes. Remove from the pot and set aside to cool. Strain the cooking liquid through a very fine sieve or Chinois into a large bowl. Set aside. When the crabs are cool, pull off their legs and set to the side of your work surface. Pull off their backs, rinse, and add to the shell pile. Pull the little tab up on the bottom of their bodies to release, remove (saving for shell pile), remove, and discard the gills and rinse off any bitter green matter. Carefully, work inside the bodies to remove any sweet flesh and be attentive to removing and discarding any bits of shell or cartilage. Reserve the meat in the fridge. With a mallet or the bottom of a sturdy sauce pan, smash the reserved shells into smaller bits. This will help them to release flavor on the next step of the bisque journey, and probably the most important one, the bisque base.

To prepare it, melt the butter over medium heat in the same Dutch oven or pot, rinsed. Add the leek, onion, celery, a generous dash of salt and pepper, and Old Bay Seasoning. Stir to coat, cooking five minutes or until just softened. Add the flour, stir, and cook another minute. Add the reserved shells, stir to coat and cook two minutes. Add the dry vermouth, increase heat to high and cook down to a glaze. Add the reserved, strained fumet base, two bay leaves and a generous pinch salt. Bring up to a boil over high, reduce to a simmer over medium, medium low, cooking uncovered for 25 minutes, skimming off foam and elimating as you go. Strain through a China cap or fine sieve/colander into a large bowl, pressing hard against the solids to release flavor before discarding them. Set the bisque base aside.

To finish the bisque, melt the butter in the same Dutch oven or pot, rinsed, over medium heat. Add the shallot, a dash of salt and pepper, and Old Bay Seasoning. Stir to coat and cook until just softened, five minutes. Add the flour, stir to coat and cook through one minute. Stir in the cream, lump crab meat, reserved blue crab flesh. Taste carefully and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Stir gently to avoid breaking up the crab. Serve steaming hot with a garnish of fresh thyme for each bowl.

Bon appetit!