I’m writing this column from lovely West Cork. I’ve been fortunate, the weather has been wonderful, sunny days and long balmy evenings to enjoy leisurely suppers in the shade of the ash tree.
I love to explore the islands and watch out for fisherman hauling in their pots on the way back to Baltimore Harbour. A few days ago, we drew up beside a little trawler hoping for a few mackerel, no such luck, they are incredibly scarce this year but he had just hauled in his pots and had a bucket full of velvet swimming crabs – what a treat. Most people can’t be bothered with them because they’re small and extracting the sweet meat is fiddly but I am in heaven picking through the little crevices and cracking the legs to enjoy the tiny morsels of white meat. I also love the teaspoon or two of brown meat in the shell.
I’m happy to enjoy them just freshly cooked with maybe a little homemade mayo and some warm soda bread but they also make a fantastic shellfish soup – the shells have a ton of flavour.
The shrimp season opens on August 1st and will continue until mid-March. Wonderful summer food, so easy to cook. Enjoy them just as they are, add them to salads or pasta, pile them onto toast or make a buttery, herby Bretonne sauce to transform them into a luxurious feast.
Apparently, the common brown crab is also scarcer this year but have you discovered spider crabs yet? They are beautiful creatures with long spindly legs, there’s very little meat in the carapace (shell) but crack the legs and you’ll find lots and lots of sweet, juicy white meat. Some fishermen and innovative supermarkets like Field’s in Skibbereen sell them already cooked as well as local mussels, clams and occasionally razor clams – another of my favourites.
All these local shellfish are perfect summer food – super quick and easy to cook so you can make the most of the beautiful weather and don’t have to spend ages in the kitchen.
Here are a few suggestions for you to enjoy…
How to cook crab
All types of crab are best cooked in seawater. Alternatively, cook in well-salted freshwater. For common crab, put the crab into a deep saucepan, cover with cold or barely lukewarm water, using 175g (6oz) of salt to every 2.3 litres (4 pints) of water. This may sound like an incredible amount of salt but try it: the crab will taste deliciously sweet.
Cover the saucepan, bring to the boil and then simmer from there on, allowing 15 minutes for the first 450g (1lb), and 10 minutes for the second and third (I’ve never come across a crab bigger than that!). We usually pour off two-thirds of the water halfway through cooking, and then cover and steam the crab for the remainder of the time. As soon as it is cooked, remove it from the saucepan and allow to get cold.
How to cook spider crabs
For spider crabs, cook in the same way but boil for just 12 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and leave to stand for 5 minutes, then remove the crabs, cool and pick the meat from the legs and clean and wash out the carapace. My favourite way to eat spider crab is to mix the sweet white meat with the very best extra virgin olive oil and a little freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste. I then fill it back into the shell and enjoy it as the Italians do, with a glass of dry white wine.
How to cook Velvet Swimming Crabs…
Follow the master recipe, add the crabs and bring to the boil. They will change colour from grey/ brown to orange red. Simmer for no more than 2-3 minutes, drain and allow to cool.
Velvet Swimming Crabs with Homemade Mayo
crabs per person with a bowl of mayonnaise and a shellfish pick… enjoy a happy half
hour or even more extracting the sweet juicy morsels of white meat.
Mediterranean Fish and Velvet Crab Soup with Rouille
I can’t pretend that this fish soup is either quick or easy. It’s a labour of love and worth every minute. Fish soups can be made with all sorts of combinations of fish. Don’t be the least bit bothered if you haven’t got exactly the fish I suggest but use a combination of whole fish and shellfish. The crab adds almost essential richness in my opinion.
2kg (4 1/2lb) mixed white fish
6-8 velvet swimming crabs
150ml (5fl oz) olive oil
1 large clove garlic, crushed
275g (9 1/2oz) approx. onion, chopped
5 large very ripe tomatoes or 1 x 400g (14oz) tin tomatoes, sliced
5 sprigs of fennel
2 sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
fish stock or water barely to cover
1/4 teaspoon saffron
salt and freshly ground pepper
pinch of cayenne
1 piece of French baguette bread, 20g (3/4oz) approx.
6 tablespoons hot fish soup
4 cloves of garlic
1 egg yolk, preferably free range and organic
pinch of whole saffron stamens
salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
8 slices French bread, baguette, thinly sliced
75g-110g (3-4oz) Gruyére cheese, grated
Cut the fish into chunks, bones, head and all (remove gills first). Heat the olive oil until smoking, add the garlic and onions, toss for a minute or two, add the sliced tomatoes, herbs and fish including the shells. Cook for 10 minutes, then add enough fish stock or water barely to cover. Bring to a fast boil and cook for a further 10 minutes. Add more liquid if it reduces too much.
Soak the saffron strands in a little fish stock. Pick out the crabs, remove as much of the crab meat from the shells as you can. Add to the soup. Taste, add salt, freshly ground pepper, cayenne, saffron and the soaking liquid.
Push the soup and soft shells through a mouli (this may seem like an impossible task but you’ll be surprised how effective it will be – there will be just a mass of dry bones left which you discard).
Next make the rouille.
Cut the bread into cubes and soak in some hot fish soup. Squeeze out the excess liquid and mix to a mush in a bowl. Crush the garlic to a fine paste preferably in a pestle and mortar, add the egg yolk, the saffron and the soggy bread. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Mix well and add in the oil drip by drip as if making mayonnaise. If the mixture looks too thick or oily add 2 tablespoons of hot fish soup and continue to stir.
Next make the croutons.
Toast slices of French bread slowly until they are dry and crisp. Bring the soup back to the boil. Serve each guest a bowl of fish soup with 3 or 4 croutons, a little bowl of rouille and a little bowl of freshly grated cheese.
crouton with rouille and sprinkle with Gruyére cheese, float a few croutons in
your bowl of Mediterranean fish soup. Exquisite.
Buttered Shrimps with Bretonne Sauce
A gorgeous butter sauce, quick and easy to make and also delicious with other fish even with the humble mackerel if you are fortunate to find a few this year…
Serves 4 as a starter, 2 as a main course
900g (2lbs) shrimps
2.3 litres (4 pints) water
2 tablespoons salt
1 egg yolk, preferably free range
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped or a mixture of chervil, chives, tarragon and fennel, chopped (mixed)
75g (3oz) butter, melted
flat parsley or fresh fennel
25g (1oz) butter
Bring the water to the boil. Add the salt, toss in the live or very fresh shrimps, they will change colour from grey to pink almost instantly. Bring the water back to the boil and cook for just 2-3 minutes. The shrimps are cooked when there is no trace of black at the back of the head. Drain immediately and spread out on a large baking tray to cool.
Next make the Bretonne Sauce.
Whisk the egg yolk with the mustard and herbs in a bowl. Bring the butter to the boil and pour it in a steady stream onto the egg yolks, whisking continuously until the sauce thickens to a light coating consistency as with a Hollandaise. Keep warm in a flask or place in a pottery or plastic bowl (not stainless steel) in a saucepan of hot but not boiling water.
Just before serving, peel the shrimps and toss in the foaming butter in
a frying pan until heated through. Heap
them onto a hot serving dish or plates.
Coat with Bretonne Sauce. Garnish
with flat parsley or fresh fennel and serve immediately.
Spaghetti with Shrimps, Red Pepper and Flat Parsley
Chunks of tuna or salmon may be substituted for shrimps in this recipe. Crispy bacon or Italian sausage is also good.
225-450g (8oz -1lb) spaghetti
2 fleshy red peppers
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
salt and freshly ground black pepper
225g (8oz) cooked peeled shrimps
a generous pinch of Aleppo or Urfa chilli flakes (optional)
175ml (6fl oz) cream
2-4 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
4.5 litres (8 pints) water to 1 tablespoon salt
Quarter the peppers, remove the seeds and cut into dice.
Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan, add the garlic, peppers, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, cover and sweat on a gentle heat until tender but not coloured – add the chilli flakes if using.
Meanwhile, bring the water to the boil, add 1 tablespoon salt. Add the pasta, stir well to make sure the strands are separate. Cover and bring back to a rolling boil, boil for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow to sit tightly covered for 10 minutes approx. by which time the pasta will be perfectly cooked.
Just before the pasta is cooked, add the shrimps to the pepper, toss around for a minute of two to heat through, add the cream and parsley. Bubble up and taste for seasoning. As soon as the pasta is ‘al dente’, drain well, add to the pan and toss in the sauce over the heat until well coated.
Turn into a hot pasta dish, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve immediately on hot plates.