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Chef Talk

Crab-O-Licious

I was in the supermarket the other day and passed a refrigerator with canned crab in it and all of a sudden I had a craving for something with crab. Let me tell you that I am not much of a fish and seafood eater, but I eat more of it now than I ever have. While growing up we never really had fresh fish so I was not a big fan of an older or frozen product. The only fish I really ate was fish and chips, but as I have always said, I can eat almost anything that has been deep fried. It was actually when I came to Las Vegas that I started to enjoy fish, and it happened to be at a steakhouse. I had halibut that was caught the day before and flown in, so it was as fresh as could be. When I was in Alaska I did eat crab or halibut for every meal I had.

I never realized there were as many varieties of crab until I started this research. There are over 7,000 varieties of true crabs, 800 coming from fresh water. True crab is a key term since many crustaceans we call crabs do not biologically fall into the crab family. One example is Alaskan king crab, which is not a true crab. Many experts think that a lot of what are called crabs are actually related to the spider family. Other “crabs” that fall into this category include the horseshoe crab and the hermit crab.

Different crabs are caught in different waters and by different methods. The blue crab, popular on the East Coast, are caught in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. They are caught by many methods including dredging, traps and bottom trawls. This variety has a very sweet flavor profile. This is the variety that gives us the highly praised and expensive soft shell crab. As the crab grows it molts its shell and grows a new one to fit its new size. When a crab is young it molts more often than when it ages. A crab is without a hard shell for only a few days, but is truly a soft shell for only a few hours. If you are going to prepare soft shell crabs make sure you remove the gills. Shrimp and lobster also shed their shells as they are growing.

Dungeness crab is a West Coast variety that lives in colder waters from Alaska to central California. They are caught in nets, hooks, lines, traps and pots. Only the males are kept so that the females can reproduce and replenish the stock. This breed is very meaty so they are commonly used to pick and sell as crab meat. The East Coast version of this crab is the Jonah crab and they are usually sold as clustered feet and as claws.

King crab, not true crab but thought of that way, are caught in Alaskan waters and the average weight is around six pounds, but they can weigh a lot more. Snow crabs are also cold water crabs caught in Alaska and Maine. They are also sold as leg clusters and claws. Southern tanner crabs are the variety used to make lump crab meat and also sold as leg clusters.

Popular in Las Vegas, the Stone Crab is a warm water crab harvested from North Carolina to Florida. When they are pulled from the water the crabber will only take one claw and return it to the water. This breed will regenerate a new claw when the other one is taken. It needs the other claw to protect itself, which is why they only take one. This variety is very sweet and succulent. 

Live crabs should be cooked as soon as possible because they are very perishable. If you buy them live and they die you should not eat them. Frozen crab has a shelf life of approximately six months, but once thawed you should cook/use them within two days. If you are buying them in the supermarket and they are thawed in the display case, you can ask the clerk to get you frozen product from the back if you do not plan on cooking them right away. I do this with most seafood I buy in a market. Canned crab is usually pasteurized so they have a long shelf life. Check the expiration date on the can.

Crabs vary in size, depending on the breed. They range from a tenth of an inch to over 13 feet of leg span. Crabs are high in protein as well as iron, zinc, magnesium, chromium, selenium, potassium and vitamins such as niacin and B12. They are low is saturated fat, but high in cholesterol.

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