Dine: Crabs are all they're cracked up to be

When I was a high school kid growing up in Fair Haven, N.J., I used to go to a club built over the Shrewsbury River where my father kept his fishing boat. At sunset, we would stop at his slip, and the dock would rock as he pulled in the line to bring the boat in. Stepping onto the gunwale, he fetched a net and a bucket from his boat supplies, handing them over to me to catch blue crabs.

While he and my mother had a drink at the bar, I’d run with friends from piling to piling, wherever there was enough light to see crabs scurry. After scooping the net into brackish water, I’d flip the basket into the bucket, shaking loose a crab’s hold.

Far from the brackish waters and bays where blue crabs live, Pittsburghers can’t seem to get enough of the sweet, flaky meat, especially now that we’re in peak season, which runs roughly from June through September.

These appetites are right in keeping with the nation’s buying habits, with so much of the seafood in the U.S. coming from abroad. 

“It’s been tremendous year for crabs,” says Henry Dewey, co-owner of Penn Avenue Fish Co. in the Strip District. “We’ve had a small army roll through this season.”

When I asked him why he’s getting so many crabs right now, he guessed it was the weather that has delayed the season.

“Maybe,” said Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.

“In the upper Chesapeake Bay, you’re getting big crabs now, with little ones in the lower bay,” he says. “A lot of it has to do with storms, winds and tides. It’s just Mother Nature being Mother Nature. That’s not a real scientific answer, but it’s honest.”

Jim Wholey of Wholey’s Fish Market, also in the Strip, says he’s getting live blue crabs from four or five guys fishing out of the Chesapeake, a departure from May, when North Carolina waters provided softshell crabs to Northern markets.

Mr. Wholey says all sorts of crab have always sold well here, which is particularly true this year, with the cost of crab less expensive than steak as beef prices continue to rise, hitting numbers 10 percent higher than last year.

He says the easiest way to eat crab is to buy them live at the shop and to have them steamed in-house. He suggests spreading newspaper over an outdoor table at home and outfitting diners with a set of crackers and a mallet. Then get cracking.

He also reminded me of Crab Hoelzel, the comparatively more refined Pittsburgh dish that originated at the Duquesne Club Downtown in the 1940s. It was back then that Jack Hoelzel, president of Pittsburgh Screw and Bolt, had a craving for crab so, after some experimenting, he and his friends came up with the dish.

Crab Hoelzel was added to the menu at his request and has remained ever since, growing so popular the club printed up recipe cards for it.

Since then, Crab Hoelzel has made its way to many Pittsburgh restaurants, such as the charming Hartwood Restaurant & Whispers Pub in Indiana Township, where it’s served with a tarragon vinaigrette over arugula. Fresh crabmeat salad may seem especially minimalist, but it’s quite nice, especially on a hot summer day.

A few things about that Pittsburgh crab dish. Duquesne Club executive chef Keith Coughenour tells me it’s supposed to use Heinz vinegars. And if you’re keeping to the spirit of the original, it’s served without greens.

I rarely caught enough crabs on those warm summer nights for a Maryland-style feast. Instead, my father would boil them, then pick them for snacks served on crackers with cocktail sauce and cream cheese, or just a squeeze of lemon. But not before passing the piece from the backfin, the best part of the crab, to my mother or me.

It’s not the way I’d eat crab now. But it’s a delicious memory.

Crab Hoelzel

Serve on its own, without greens if you’re staying true to the original, which also calls for the use of Heinz vinegars, of course.

1/4 cup tarragon vinegar

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons fresh cracked black pepper

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound fresh jumbo lump crabmeat

Combine the vinegars, salt and pepper in a bowl. Whisk in olive oil in a steady stream. Transfer crabmeat to a mixing bowl and ladle with dressing, to taste.

Serves 4.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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