The creamy crab soup of Maryland—which appears on every crab house menu there—can’t hold a candle to the creamy crab soup of Charleston and Savannah. In the Low Country, they specify that the soup be made from female crabs—which means that all of that wonderful crabby orange roe becomes a taste and texture element in the soup. The ideal way to make this soup, then, is with female crabs; though they’re almost never seen in crab houses, they are abundantly available in fish stores in Chinese neighborhoods (like New York’s Chinatown.) Ask the fishmonger for females. If you can’t find ’em, and are forced to use “jimmies,” or male crabs, a traditional substitute for the roe is minced hard-boiled egg, added to the top of the soup just before serving. In the following recipe, I was looking for one thing above all: sheer crab flavor. That’s why the soup starts with live crabs and their shells, and uses no stock or water. The result is startlingly intense and rich—so much so that you might want to consider serving only small portions of it, in, say, espresso cups, as a kind of elegant “amuse-bouche” at the start of a fancy dinner party (on the verandah, of course.)
serves 12-16 as a small-soup taste, 6-8 as a soup course
12 large, live blue crabs, female if possible
6 tablespoons butter
1 cup coarsely chopped onion
1 cup coarsely chopped celery
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Parsley stems from 1 large bunch, about ½ cup
6 cups cream
4 cups milk
1 tablespoon dry sherry
1. Plunge the crabs into a large pot of boiling salted water. Cover, and cook for 8 minutes. Drain crabs in a colander and run under cold water to stop cooking.
2. When crabs are cool enough to handle, pick out the crab meat, tomalley and roe, reserving the shells. You should have about 1½ cups crab meat and 1 cup of roe. Pick through the meat to make sure you’ve removed all of the cartilage. Refrigerate the crab meat and roe until needed.
3. Rinse the shells of any sand, and crush them with a mallet, or the side of a cleaver, or the bottom of a heavy pot. Set aside.
4. Melt the butter in a large, heavy stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the crab shells and cook, stirring on occasion, for 10 minutes. Add the onions, celery, dried thyme and parsley stems. Cook for another 10 minutes, stirring every now and then to prevent sticking.
5. Add the cream and milk. Bring to a boil. Immediately lower the heat and cook at a low simmer for 1½ hours, stirring on occasion to keep from burning.
6. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a large pot. Bring to a simmer. Add the crab meat, roe and sherry. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Simmer for 5 minutes, then serve immediately. Place the cayenne, Tabasco sauce and paprika on the table for diners to add to the soup.
NOTE: If you’d like the soup to be even more crab-intense—put it in the refrigerator at the end of step #5, before straining. Hold the shells in the liquid overnight. Then strain the next day, proceeding with step #6.