Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Crab Gumbo

I've seen crabs try to climb out of just about every container imaginable: sinks, buckets, baskets, boxes, even out of a pot of boiling water at a crab boil on the Potomac -- I was shocked to see people throwing live crabs into the pot; we always pulled their shells off and cleaned them first -- but what I remember best is the way the blue crabs crawled over one another, trying to get out of galvanized wash tubs, when we used to go crabbing along the Texas Gulf Coast. Sundown when the tide was coming in was the best time. We used soup bones for bait. You can hear the crabs' claws clicking and scraping on the metal as they climb on each other's backs, trying to make it up to the rim of the tub. Sometimes a crab makes it to the rim, and it looks like the other crabs pull it down on purpose. I used to feel sorriest for the ones made it all the way out. How do they know to scuttle for the water instead of heading for higher ground? It doesn't matter. The god of the caught crabs always grabbed them and threw them back into the tub anyway.

My mama worked 8 to 5 and cooked supper for three kids when she got home. There are probably a lot of gumbo recipes better than the one I'm about to give you, but I doubt any this good are as quick.

You need those crabs, the ones were climbing over each other and pulling each other down and desperately trying to get on top. You pull their backs off. It's funny how the crabs that make it to the top get their backs pulled off first, isn't it? Not that it does the other crabs any good to lay low. They end up just as dead. Their fates were predestined as soon as they took the bait.

You probably know not to eat the grey gills, so I won't go into that, except to say pull their backs off and clean the crabs under cool, fresh water, break their claws off and break their bodies in half. You can use shrimp instead of the crabs or with the crabs if you want.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of peanut oil in a heavy, stainless steel or enameled pot. You don't want to be putting okra in a cast iron pot.

Chop up a medium onion and a couple of cloves of garlic and sauté them until the onions are glassy. You probably know to smash the garlic with the flat of a heavy knife before you peel it. I didn't know that until a couple of years ago. I used to pick at my cloves of garlic with a little paring knife. Nobody showed me how much easier it was to peel garlic if you smash it first.

Wash a pound-and-a-half of frozen cut okra. You can use cut fresh okra if you want, but my mama never did. Throw the okra in the pot and stir it over medium heat until most of the slime disappears. Then you add 2 8-oz cans of tomato sauce and 2 cans of water. That's the basic amount of sauce for 4 or 5 crabs or a pound of shrimp. I always increase the recipe by doubling everything. 8 or 10 crabs, use 4 cans of tomato sauce and 4 cans of water. Double the oil, onions, garlic and okra, too. Throw in some salt and plenty of pepper.

Boil the sauce until the water is boiled off. You'll be back about where you were before you added the water. Add the crabs or shrimp. They'll give up some water. Boil it off and you're done.

The only spices my mama used were salt and pepper. But you can use bay leaves and cayenne pepper, too. And you can use basil, fennel and thyme to tip the gumbo toward Asia or Louisiana. Basil and fennel move the recipe in the direction of the fine bouillabaisse you get in Vietnamese restaurants that cook in the French tradition. Used to be one in Washington, D.C., around Dupont Circle. Thyme and maybe some celery or celery salt pushes it toward Louisiana gumbo.

Nobody will stop you if you want to peel and seed fresh tomatoes instead of using tomato sauce, but, if you do that, you may as well get Emeril's recipe and spend a couple of hours making gumbo. I've been experimenting with adding some San Marzano cherry tomatoes lately. Another can to open.

Serve over rice. You know how to make rice. Bring 2 cups of salted water to a boil. Dump in a cup of rice and stir. Cover and reduce the heat to low simmer for 20 minutes. Do not touch the lid until 20 minutes is up and you turn the heat off. If you peek, somebody has to yell at you and you have to start over. The greatest trick you'll ever turn in life is finding the right person to yell at you.

French bread is good. Dry white wine or beer go best for me. Champagne is good, too.

If you figure out why it is gumbo and rice takes forever to get cool enough to eat, please let me know.

If you figure out where those crabs think they're going, pulling each other down and crawling over each other's backs to get there, you can let me know that, too.