Kitchen Exhibitionist
The Culinary Quests of a Food Enthusiast Stuck in the Sticks
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
The Crab Feast (& Pasta Pesto Pea Salad)
The Crab Feast (& Pasta Pesto Pea Salad)

Although I often complain about the lack of epicurean excitement in this part of south central Pennsylvania, our proximity to the Chesapeake Bay (Baltimore is about an hour away) provides us with a special treat not available in many other parts of the country……blue crabs! Every summer I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend a couple of crab feasts.

I’ll never forget my very first crab feast over 20 years ago. I was a student in Baltimore at the time, recently relocated from Long Island. My beau-du-jour, a native Baltimorean, invited me to this common local event and I had no idea what to expect.

Outdoor tables were covered with layers of newspaper pages and mysteriously outfitted with a roll of paper towels, some toy-sized wooden mallets, and a couple of table knives. As we waited for the crabs to arrive, we drank beer from large plastic cups which we filled from a huge keg. Then the guests of honor arrived: the crabs! Bushel baskets of hot steamed crabs were casually dumped in piles on the center of each table, perfuming the air with that unique aroma of fresh hot crab and Old Bay seasoning.

I didn’t know how to eat a whole crab so I watched in awe while everyone around me dug in. The table conversation was punctuated by the whacks of mallets, the sound of cracking shells, and murmurs of satisfaction.

When the people seated around me discovered I was a first-time crab eater, they offered plenty of instruction. Surprisingly, each person had their own way of picking the meat from the crabs and argued the merits of his or her technique over that of the others.

Some people went right for the choicest snowy white lumps. Others saved the best for last. There were those who used a mallet and knife to extract the sweet white meat while others shunned such utensils, taking pride in cracking the crabs with their bare hands. Some people cracked, sucked, and retrieved every shred of meat from every part of the crab before moving on to the next crab, while others bypassed the difficult parts, like the small legs, and tossed them into the shell trash pile.

At the time I was working on my Master’s degree in clinical psychology and had been studying the various subjective personality tests that are used to evaluate patients’ psyches, like the Rorschach test, the Thematic Apperception Test, and others. As I sat there watching everyone around me eating their crabs I realized that the way a person cracked and ate crabs could tell a lot about him or her, just like the personality tests I had been learning. Perhaps there was a thesis in there somewhere! That wasn’t the only time I recognized a relationship between gastronomy and psychological theories of human behavior.

But back to the crabs. They were delicious, their pure white meat sweet and delicate, seasoned with the Old Bay spices that were carried from the outside of the shell, to my fingers, to the delectable morsels of crab meat, and to my mouth. The only downside was the amount of effort required to extract the crab’s meat from its shell. It isn’t easy to get fully satisfied on steamed crabs, which is why most crab feasts also include burgers and hot dogs cooked on the grill along with an array of salads and side dishes.

I’ve been to many a crab feast since my first introduction to these sweet briny creatures, and every time, as I watch people cracking and eating their crabs, I think about that thesis I should have written. And each time, I contribute a side dish to the pot-luck buffet table, which lately has been this one I share here.

Pasta Pesto Pea Salad is one of my favorites for such an event. Green-flecked with pesto, spinach, and bright tiny emerald marbles of peas, it really stands out on a buffet table. Its fragrance is intense with the heady aromas of basil, olive oil, and parmesan cheese. One whiff encourages plates to be loaded. Those wonderful flavors, along with the mouth-pleasing texture offered by the combination of two different pasta shapes and the crunch of toasted pine nuts makes this a popular summer side dish to tote to any event, whether it involves crabs or not.

Pasta Pesto Pea Salad
From Barefoot Contessa Parties By Ina Garten
Yield: 12 servings

3/4 pound fusilli pasta
3/4 pound bow-tie pasta
1/4 cup good-quality olive oil
1 1/2 cups pesto (homemade or purchased)
1 10 oz. package frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/4 cups good-quality mayonnaise
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 cups frozen peas, thawed
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Cook fusilli and bow ties separately in a large pot of boiling water for 10 to 12 minutes, until each pasta is al dente. Drain and toss in a bowl with olive oil. Cool to room temperature.

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with steel blade, puree pesto, spinach and lemon juice. Add mayonnaise and continue to puree. Add the pesto mixture to cooled pasta and mix well. Add the Parmesan cheese, peas, pine nuts, salt and pepper. Toss well, season to taste, and serve chilled or at room temperature.

Makes 12 servings.

Note: To toast nuts, spread on a dry baking sheet and place in preheated 325-degree oven 5 to 7 minutes, checking and stirring often to prevent burning. Nuts may also be toasted in skillet over medium heat, 5 to 7 minutes, stirring frequently; or in microwave on high, 2 1/2 to 4 minutes, stirring after 2 minutes.

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Blogger Deborah Dowd said...
We went to a place in Maryland called Ernies that was just as you described and it was an experience. Here in Tidewater we can catch crabs in the summer... the only down side? The smell of steamed crabs takes a while to get rid of if you do them in your house (put your grill's side burner to work to avoid this)

Blogger Crazy Lady said...
That salad sounds wonderful. I happen to have all of the ingredients on hand, so I think I know what we are having for dinner!