Blue swimmer crab with tomato, garlic and anchovy butter sauce
Dealing with whole crabs can be a real crowd divider. While most people agree that crabmeat is sweet and unctuous, many people will only go with the luxury of eating it when someone else has done the hard work and picked it for them. Admittedly this is an easy and delightful way to go – all that rich flesh with no fuss. And as much as I will happily indulge this way, I am still firmly on the side that says the mess and the effort of picking and eating it somehow makes the flesh even sweeter. A little work equals greater rewards.
I agree it can be daunting, particularly if you have an aversion to disarray or eating with your hands, or are unaccustomed to the best way to attack it. There are, of course, many approaches to doing it neatly, nicely and methodically that are just a matter of slight dexterity and practice. I would advise finding a friend who feels they have a way with it and choosing them as your crab-eating partner. Watch and learn. And then practise. Because although the eating of this animal can be fiddly, cooking crab is easy and fast.
The tomato sauce recipe that follows is a little bit rich because of all the butter, and super savoury because of the anchovies. Both of these flavours go beautifully with crab. Butter is a classic pairing that is decadent, with the tomato providing a base with a nice amount of acid to balance. The subtle saltiness from the anchovies serves to highlight the salty ocean notes of this crustacean. Again, a perfect balance.
The other important thing to note when eating crab is to make sure you have something to mop up all the juices and sauciness that the creature so generously gives. Something carb-like is best: rice, roti and potatoes are always good options and bread is another easy favourite. But for extra specialness I would go the pasta route, essentially turning this dish into a two-course meal. It does require a little more effort and planning, but it is so worth it. There is something luxurious about perfectly cooked fresh pasta, silky and warm and ready to absorb whatever flavours you throw at it. And it’s like a special reward – you’ve done all the hard work of picking, and then at the end, after washing your hands, you get the joy and comfort of a hot bowl of pasta that captures all the remaining juices, leaving nothing to waste.
Time: 40 minutes total
- 3 whole blue swimmer crabs
- 8 medium garlic cloves, peeled
- 6 anchovy fillets
- 100g butter, diced
- 400g tomato passata
- olive oil for cooking and seasoning
- salt flakes and black pepper
- baguette or some such crusty bread
- 200g fresh pasta, cut into anything between tagliarini and tagliatelle, with some chervil or chives to garnish and a drizzle of olive oil
- salad with bitter leaves and herbs
- Let’s deal with the crabs first. Don’t be scared because it’s quite easy. Hold one crab over a large bowl and use your finger to lift the bottom flap, get your fingers under this and then pull off the top shell, scraping any of the crab bits from the inside and reserving this along with any juices in the bowl. Remove the gills and then use a sharp knife to cut the crab down the middle. Place the crab into your bowl and repeat with the remaining two. Set aside.
- Using a mortar and pestle, pound your garlic with a pinch of salt until it is fluffy and completely broken down. Add the anchovy fillets and pound until you have a combined paste. Put this, along with your butter, into a medium saucepan and place over a low heat. As the butter melts, keep stirring the mixture, as you want to cook it gently so the garlic infuses without burning. Once it starts to sizzle and darken be at the ready with your passata. This needs to be added at the moment just before the garlic burns (about six minutes in). Season well with black pepper and just a little salt.
- Once the tomato is in, you can relax and cook the sauce for 20 minutes, stirring just occasionally. This step can be done days in advance and can, in fact, be made and frozen ready for you to use as a handy little tomato sauce.
- Once you are ready for your crabs, place a large shallow saucepan (with a lid) over a high heat. Warm, add a generous splash of oil and, once it heats, put the crabs and any juicy bits from the bowl straight in. Let the crabs sizzle and start to colour and then give them a gentle turn to colour the other side. Do this for about three minutes and then add in the tomato sauce. Once the sauce is in, reduce the heat to low, give the crabs another stir and cover with a lid.
- Cook until they are ready (about five or six minutes), stirring occasionally.
- Serve in a large bowl, scraping out all the sauce, with individual shallow bowls for you and your guest. Have a bowl for shells nearby and finger bowls filled with warm water and lemon to help with the mess. Have many napkins within easy reach. Pick the crabs at your leisure.
- If you are going down the bread route, simply have it at hand ready for dipping as desired. If you are getting a little bit fancy with pasta, make sure you have a saucepan of salted water on the stove.
- Once you and your guest have finished eating your crab, wash your hands, and make sure your pasta water is on the boil. Gather the bowl you served the crab in, which should have a pool of sauce left in it. Add this sauce into a medium frying pan and gently heat. Cook your fresh pasta briefly and then toss it through this heated tomato sauce.
- Serve the pasta straight back into the bowls you have been eating from, which will also have some residual saucy crab goodness. Top with a generous sprinkle of finely chopped chives or a nice amount of roughly chopped chervil and a drizzle of olive oil. Enjoy with a fork and clean hands.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "Reward for toil".
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