Thursday, December 30, 2010

Crustacean Celebration: Deadly? I Think Not

Most cookbooks are divided into categories. Some go with the "meat, vegetables, seafood" format where recipes are slotted by main ingredient. Others divvy them up by course: appetizers, entrées, desserts, etc. I even have one that has separated the recipes into occasions, like picnics, parties, casual dinners and, of course, formal dinners. The pages of that last section, by the way, are as pristine as the day it was bought at a garage sale, giving you an idea of how useful its various owners have found it.

But I propose another way to categorize a cookbook, and that's by how you feel. Happy? Make some small plates of your favorite foods, including simple salads and desserts. Depressed? You could indulge in a big ol' chocolate cake by yourself, or treat your mood with lots of fish and kale (Omega 3s and anti-oxidants).

Then there's sinful, which I'm sure someone has been done already and titled "Food for Lovers" or some such, full of unctuous (good word for that category, right?), creamy, rich or sweet flavors that beg to be licked off the plate or some other surface (but we'll stop there).

A perfect food for that category, though one I doubt would normally be thought of, is crab. It's certainly rich and has a delicate sweetness on its own…think whole pieces of leg or joint eaten right out of the shell. But it takes on a whole different personality when folded into a creamy sauce or warmed in a bisque, its sweet character enhancing the lushness of the dish and the warm meat melting when it hits your tongue.

Which is why, when I saw that cooked whole crabs had hit $3.99 a pound, and knowing that early season crab is the sweetest, I bought two and fantasized about using it in macaroni and cheese. While I was only planning on using the meat from one of them for the casserole, the price and my lack of inhibitions made me throw the meat from both into the noodles and sauce just before I slid it into the oven, and it was so worth it.

This recipe would be terrific for a special dinner, served in individual ramekins which, depending on your mood and the setting (say, in front of the fire on a lambskin rug?) could make for a memorable evening. Champagne, anyone?

Crab Macaroni and Cheese

1 lb. dried pasta (penne or cavatappi are my faves)
 4 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
2 c. milk (or 1 c. cream, 1 c. milk)
 3/4 lb. extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
8 oz. cream cheese
1/2 tsp. hot pepper sauce (I use Sriracha or harissa) 
Salt and pepper to taste
Meat from 1-2 crabs

Boil large pot of water. While water is heating, melt butter in medium saucepan. Remove from burner and add flour, stirring to combine. Return to burner and cook on low heat for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add milk and stir until it thickened, then add cheese in handfuls, stirring until melted. Add cream cheese and stir until sauce is thick and creamy, then add hot sauce with salt and pepper to taste.

Add pasta to boiling water and cook till al dente. Drain and put back in pasta pot, pour cheese sauce and crab meat over top and fold in briefly to combine, keeping crab from breaking up too much. Pour into baking dish. Bake in 350 degree oven 30 minutes.

Check out this season's Crustacean Celebration series: Pasta with Crab and Radicchio, The Big Boys Weigh In, and Let Them Eat Cakes. See also: last season's series starting with Hot Artichoke and Crab Dip (and links to other posts in the series).

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