How to dress a favourite crustacean

Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.

One of life’s greatest luxuries is hand-picked crabmeat; preferably hand-picked by somebody else. Although there are prepicked crabmeat products available, fresh-picked is best, dressed and served on its own or as part of a dish. 

Crabmeat is delicate and cannot withstand a bombardment of too many bold flavours. Subtlety is best. I prefer to serve crab simply so as not to lose the precious flavour and texture. The crab sandwich works so well with white fluffy bread. Somehow the bread magically manages to add nothing. No flavour at all, merely a soft pillowy texture to house the delicate crabmeat. 

A dish now found in many countries is baked crab. For this, the crabmeat is carefully picked before being flavoured and stuffed back into the clean head shell. It is then baked and served warm. In Spain, Txangurro is flavoured with a tomato sofrito and cayenne pepper before being put back into the shell. In South-East Asia, pork mince and aromatics are often added. Beware, though, of bechamel, a flour-based sauce, sometimes used to bind the crab for this preparation. It should be avoided. The very British dish of dressed crab is similar, but it is served cool, not baked.

To prepare dressed crab, the meat is meticulously removed from the shell and legs. I like to dress the crab with mace, white pepper, mayonnaise and lemon juice or, for a more traditional and simple dressing, use a pinch of cayenne pepper and lemon juice. Both versions should be served with heavily buttered bread.

There are a number of crab varieties available at the market. Blue swimmer crab is plentiful and relatively cheap. Careful cooking is required, though. Overcooked blue swimmer meat easily becomes waterlogged. I prefer to steam this variety. Mud crab or spanner crab from Queensland maintains a lovely thread and sweet clean meat. It can be boiled or steamed.

To dispatch a crab, place it in the freezer for half an hour to put it to sleep. Remove the insensible crab from the freezer, turn over and lift up the small flap underneath. Working quickly, insert a knitting needle and push in and down towards the front of the head; move the needle from side to side to kill the crab.

Now plunge the crab into a large saucepan of boiling salted water. It takes about 10-15 minutes to cook a one-kilogram crab this way. If you wish to steam the crab, cut it in half and place in the steamer for five minutes before removing the claws. Return the body to the steamer and continue to cook for another 10 minutes. 

Remove and place the cooked crab in the fridge until it’s cool enough to handle.

The care with which the crabmeat is picked from the head and cartilage will determine the point of pleasure. There is nothing less enjoyable than a mouthful of sharp shell.

1 . Devilled crab

Makes 10 pieces

– 1 head baby cos or cosberg lettuce

– 200g cooked spanner crabmeat

– 1½ tbsp Kewpie Mayonnaise

– 1½ tsp lemon juice 

– pinch ground fennel seeds

– handful of fresh curry leaves

– cup of vegetable oil

– salt

– pinch ground Espelette pepper or chilli flakes

Remove 10 small crisp inner leaves from the lettuce. Wash the leaves and dry well. Leave in the fridge until ready to serve.

Combine the crab, Kewpie Mayonnaise and lemon juice in a bowl. Season to taste with a little salt and a pinch of ground fennel. 

In a medium-sized pot, heat about one cup of vegetable oil and fry the curry leaves until they are crisp and translucent. Alternatively, brush the leaves with a little oil and microwave them in 15-second bursts until crisp. Transfer the leaves to some paper towel and sprinkle with a little salt.

Divide the crab mixture between the lettuce leaves and top each with a few fried curry leaves and a sprinkle of Espelette pepper or chilli flakes.

2 . Crab and watercress sandwiches

Makes 3 sandwiches

Soft white fluffy bread is off the menu in our home, except when it’s time to prepare crab sandwiches or fairy bread.

– 100g cooked crabmeat

– 1 tbsp finely diced shallot 

– 2 tsp chopped chervil

– 1 tbsp Kewpie Mayonnaise

– 6 slices white bread

– soft butter

– pinch cayenne pepper

– handful watercress leaves, picked

Mix the crab, shallot, chervil, cayenne and Kewpie Mayonnaise together.

Spread the bread with plenty of soft butter.

Divide the filling evenly between three slices of buttered bread, top with a nice pile of watercress leaves and top with the remaining slices of bread. Place the sandwiches in the fridge for an hour to “set”.

To serve, carefully trim the crusts and cut the sandwiches in half diagonally to make pretty triangles.

3 . Wine pairing:

2014 Domaine Lucci chardonnay, Adelaide Hills ($26) – Campbell Burton, sommelier, Builders Arms Hotel.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2014 as "Delicate matters".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.