I was stung into creating a crab linguini recipe by a terrible meal that we had in a nameless restaurant in St Ives (Cornwall). It was an anniversary present to ourselves, and I think the chef must have taken a night off and let the kitchen porter have a go. The one thing you could undoubtedly say about it was that it contained linguini. In fact that was about all it did contain. Any crab present was in such homeopathic quantities it would have taken a wine taster to name it.
So £100 lighter and suitably disgruntled I set to work to improve it. I knew what all the ingredients were because there were some that appeared on the menu and others that had such a brief encounter with the stove you could still read the labels.
First, though you need to prepare the crab. I know you can buy it at the supermarket but compared with the cost of a real freshly caught crab the flavour is rubbish and the real deal comes in at a fraction of the cost. The four crabs in the picture cost £14 and yielded enough meat to fill the bowl alongside twice over.
The process is inevitably messy and fiddly but proper cooking is not for the faint hearted, so first you break off all the legs and claws and, one at a time, whack them with a small hammer or the end of a rolling pin so you can pick the white meat out with a skewer or anything else you’ve got lying around in the kitchen. Be warned that there’s a fair amount of shrapnel in this process. Ignore the temptation to concentrate on just the big claws because it’s amazing how much meat you can coax out of the second and third joints of the small ones. Then you need to turn your attention to the bit that most people baulk at. There’s no pretty way of getting into the main shell except brute force. When you finally get the lid off you’ll see the so-called dead mens fingers. Pull them off carefully (they come away quite easily) and chuck them into the waste bowl and then remove the brown meat – you can do it with a spoon, but if it’s very gloopy, I do it with a finger, and add it to the white meat. Under no circumstances should you chicken out because (as someone said yesterday) it looks horrible. It’s where virtually all the flavour comes from. And there’s the main ingredient finished.
As for the recipe, like all my dishes it’s evolved over the years, so it’s become more and more inflected with asian flavours. I don’t bother much about exact quantities, it depends what’s available and nobody dies if you change it to suit your own taste. So yesterday I gently fried off a large clove of elephant garlic, a couple of spring onions, a single hot chilli and a couple of slices of chopped ginger. Then I chucked in a generous amount of crab meat, a couple of grated tomatoes to loosen it, a little salt and at the last moment a small handful of chopped coriander and the juice of half a lemon.
Liguini is just linguini, but for this recipe if we’re flush, I put a good pinch of saffron into the cooking water – enough to colour it and impart some flavour. Too much saffron tastes medicinal, it should stay in the background. Then unite the pasta with the sauce, give it a stir and serve it. Like panzanella (of which more later) you could cook this in a hundred different ways and they’re all lovely.
The plan, then was to make a panzanella as a starter because we’re overwhelmed with tomatoes from the allotment. But the one thing you can’t skimp on is the bread. Sadly around here the supermarkets don’t do any sourdough, and suitable crusty bread is almost impossible to find – speaking of which, whatever happened to the cottage loaf and the Vienna roll? They’ve been excised in favour of newer delights, so I’m going to make a cottage loaf when I get home. Anyway we found ourselves in Aberdaron yesterday where we found a real bakery. Round here almost everyone speaks Welsh (lucky them, it’s the queen of languages) but they instantly clock a tourist and revert to English. The woman on the counter had the look of someone whose business is a constant struggle against the tide. She summed us up in a glimpse and said “we’ve got a sourdough”. I should have smelt a rat when she took it down from the shelf – it was clearly a flat loaf made from the same dough as all the other bread, but cooked on the floor of the oven. Somehow or other the term ‘sourdough’ has come to be – here at least – associated with the shape and not the dough. Panzanella therefore was off, but the linguini fed four of us very well with enough crab meat left over for more sandwiches than it’s decent to eat. If we had any freezer space I’d think about freezing the remains of the shells (minus the dead mens fingers) and making a shellfish soup on another day – why waste all that flavour?