This week I have been grappling with the Great Crustacean Controversy. Specifically, do the crabs, lobsters, and other crustaceans we eat feel pain, and if so, what is the most humane way to kill them? Or, as David Foster Wallace famously phrased it (far more articulately and precisely than I ever could), “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” At a more ignorant time of my life, I blithely tossed live lobsters into pots of boiling water, clapped the lid on, and equally blithely devoured them. Lobsters don’t scream when you cook them – that much is myth – but recent studies suggest that crustaceans do in fact feel pain, or at least they exhibit behaviors consistent with the avoidance of remembered pain, strongly supporting an inference that they experience pain. It thus is most humane to kill them before cooking them. But how? Maybe some of you remember the lobster scene from Mostly Martha, the 2001 film about a German chef who discovers her softer side thanks to her niece and an Italian sous chef. She sobs over the abstract suffering of the lobster, which in most circumstances is denied the mercy of a swift death. Even Gordon Ramsay kills his lobsters before cooking them.
The generally accepted way of quickly despatching your lobster is to drive the tip of a sharp knife through its head, between its eyes. The proximate violence of this Trotsky-assassin way of killing deters many of the more squeamish home lobster eaters. But even this solution is not so straightforward. Writing for the New York Times Magazine, Jill Santopietro suggests that cutting a lobster through its head may be crueller than boiling, as its nervous system doesn’t allow it to feel shock. David Foster Wallace agrees that this method is not quite as effective as we want to think it is because lobsters’ nervous systems are decentralized, and disabling only the frontal ganglion “does not normally result in death or unconsciousness.”
In an article that makes me profoundly grateful to the internet for the access it grants me to the admirable geekery of others, Dave Arnold of the International Culinary Institute describes his experiments with (a) various methods of killing lobsters and (b) the impact of each method on the ultimate flavor of the cooked beastie. Arnold tried boiling/steaming, extreme chilling (i.e., putting the lobster in the freezer before cooking), hypnosis induced by carapace rubbing (!), electrocution (!!), a knife through the head, a knife through the head plus F-4 self-sealing silicone tape (in which he immediately ‘sealed’ the lobster after stabbing to try to prevent the hemolymph from seeping out and/or water from seeping in and damaging the tomalley – not successful, but he hasn’t given up hope), and – his favorite – anesthetizing the lobster using a solution made of clove oil (available at natural food stores) and ethanol. The solution is then diffused in a salt water bath. From the article:
At first you will see nothing. Then the lobsters will show some movement, maybe some tail flicks. Then the lobsters will stop moving and you’ll think they are knocked out. They aren’t. Instead, after a little rest they will start zombie-walking backwards. Pick them up and they will still zombie walk. If they reach the side of the tank they still zombie walk. After the zombie phase, they go slack again. It’s boiling time.
Zombie-walking, clove-doped lobsters? I’m in. Next time I kill a crustacean, I’m anesthetizing it first.
Onto this crab. I did not kill this crab. Last week, before I did the research for this blog post, I went to Mutual Fish and exposed myself as a squeamish amateur by asking the laconic septuagenarian Asian lady helping me, “will you kill it for me?” THWACK! She flipped the thing on its back and, using a giant cleaver, split it clean in half. I don’t know what I expected. A stab with a miniature ice pick between the eyes, perhaps. The problem with this method is you lose all the coral inside the crab, which some people think is the best part. Also, by showing myself incapable of killing my crab, I’d squandered any prospect of earning my crab lady’s respect. “You go home. You boil water. You put salt in water. You cook crab,” she instructed me, as if speaking to an inattentive child. This much I knew.
From a 2.5 pound Dungeness crab, you will extract approximately half a pound of lump crabmeat. I am a crab cake purist: I want my crab cakes to taste and have the texture of crabmeat. But corn complements crab particularly well. A cheffy friend told me there is a food science explanation for this symbiosis, but the internet’s let me down on this issue. I’m sorry, I can’t explain it, but they’re delicious together. This recipe makes eight three to four inch crab cakes, enough for four appetizer, light lunch, or brunch servings. Put an egg on ‘em, you won’t regret it. Or don’t, and just serve them with the sriracha mayonnaise and a green salad tossed in a lemony dressing. (Recipes follow.) Ingredients:
For the crab and corn cakes
230 grams (8 ounces) fresh lump crabmeat, or one whole 2.5 pound (2.2 kilo) crab, prepared as described below
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 teaspoon togarashi (a Japanese spice blend, containing dried ground chillies and usually black sesame, dried citrus peel, nori, and other spices)
1 ear of sweet corn
1 medium sweet onion, chopped finely
50 g (about ½ stick) butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup (15 grams) panko style breadcrumbs
1 large egg, beaten
½ cup (25 grams) panko style breadcrumbs mixed with ½ teaspoon salt for dredging
Canola oil for frying
For the sriracha mayonnaise
One egg yolk
2/3 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon hot Sriracha sauce
For the lemon dressing
4 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons fruity green olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
Fresh black pepper
And don’t forget the greens for the salad … a medium handful of greens per person.
If you are starting with a whole live or uncooked crab, boil in heavily salted water for 10 minutes, then drain. When cool, pick the meat from the claws, reserving the coral and shells for another use.
Steam the ear of corn for exactly five minutes, so that the kernels are still crisp/tender, and when the corn is cool enough to handle, strip the kernels from the cob using a sharp knife.
Melt the butter over medium heat, and slowly sauté the onion until transparent. When the onion is cool, combine all of the crab cake ingredients except the reserved panko and salt. Form into patties about three inches (five centimetres) across by squeezing firmly between your palms, then dredge the patties in the reserved panko and put on a plate or board. The crab cakes are fragile, so handle carefully and really squish them together to ensure they hold. Chill for at least 30 minutes to an hour in your fridge. (You can make your crab cakes up to three days in advance, depending on the freshness of your crabs.)
While your crab cakes are chilling, make your mayonnaise and salad dressing. For the salad dressing, simply combine all ingredients, taste, and adjust seasonings as needed.
I make mayonnaise by hand, but you can also do it in a food processor. Whisk the egg yolk thoroughly. Slowly dribble in the canola oil, whisking all the while to emulsify. If you do this slowly enough, your mayonnaise will emulsify and will not separate. When all of the canola oil has been incorporated, stir in the salt and the Sriracha.
To cook the crab cakes, heat the canola oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium high heat, and fry the cakes, squishing down with the back of your spatula once they’re in the pan and flipping once. Transfer if desired to a paper towel lined plate to cool, or serve immediately.
Toss the salad in the dressing, place two crab cakes on top of the salad per serving, and add a dollop of Sriracha mayonnaise. If you’re making these for brunch, top with a fried or poached egg.