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Recipes and Stories

24 August 2013: Deviled Crab

Deviled Crab, a Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry Classic

Crab cakes have become standard fare on Southern restaurant menus from Maryland to Louisiana, and one of the signature dishes of modern Southern cooking. They’re so popular that it seems petty to quibble over them. But as delectable as it can be (when well made), molding cooked crabmeat into a regular, round cake presents a delicate balancing act for the cook: keeping the binding breading to a minimum without having the cake fall apart in the frying pan.

That’s why I prefer the Lowcountry specialty, Deviled Crab, in which the cooked meat is picked from the animal’s thorny shell, seasoned, and then stuffed right back where it came from. There’s no worry about too much breading—in fact, there needn’t be any breading at all, since the shells become a natural casing that holds the whole thing together.

Removing the cooked meat from the shell is a bit tedious, but once that chore is done, Deviled Crabs take only minutes to toss together, and require almost no attention while they cook. Of course, you can make a faint imitation of the dish with ready-picked, pasteurized crabmeat, stuffing it into ramekins or scallop shells, but pasteurization affects the flavor of the meat. And since it undergoes further cooking, the backfin shells preserve the flavor and keep the meat from getting dry.

Just accept that nothing in this life that is worth having is ever easy.

Just like the stuffed eggs that sport the same name, “deviled” here has nothing to do with dark forces of the occult; it only means the cook has used hot spice. In the South, that spice is usually mustard or cayenne, or, as in this case, both. But the most common mistake with deviled crab is taking the deviling too literally: a little heat will go a long way here. Too much hot spice will overwhelm the sweet, delicate flavor of the crabmeat. So, exercise a little restraint with the pepper, especially if you decide to get trendy and add sriracha, that thick, Southeast Asian hot sauce that is the hot (no pun intended) ingredient of the moment.

Serves 4

1 pound (1 pint) fresh crabmeat (meat from about 12 steamed crabs), 8 back shells reserved
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ medium yellow onion, peeled and minced
1 medium green bell pepper, stem, core, seeds, and membranes removed, minced
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and finely minced
1 small fresh or dried hot red chile pepper such as cayenne, seeded and minced
Juice of ½ lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
½ cup soft bread crumbs (about 1 thick slice white bread, crust removed)
Rock salt or aluminum foil
¼ cup dry bread crumbs

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400° F. Pick over the crab for any lingering bits of cartilage and shell. Put 1 tablespoon olive oil, the onion, and bell pepper in a skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat and sauté, tossing often, until the onion is beginning to color, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and hot pepper and toss until fragrant, about half a minute more. Turn off the heat, add the crab and toss lightly. Sprinkle in the lemon juice and fold in the mustard. Add the soft crumbs, toss, then taste and season with salt as needed.

2. Cover the bottom of a rimmed baking sheet with rock salt or crumpled foil. Divide the crab among the 8 reserved backfin shells, mounding it a little on top, and press them into the salt or foil, filling side up, so that they will lie flat.

3. Wipe out the pan, add the remaining oil, and warm over medium heat. Stir in the dry crumbs, mixing until the oil is evenly absorbed. Sprinkle them evenly over the crab and bake in the center of the oven until the crumbs are nicely browned and the filling is hot, about 15 to 20 minutes.

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