Quick ‘n dirty saturday night dinner report: I had spent all saturday working on “Day 1” of Mark Bittman’s cassoulet recipe as published in the New York Times a few weeks ago (available here, for you masochists and those with lots of time on their hands). Dinnertime rolled around and it was time to put away the duck carcass (broken down, fat rendered, carcass roasted and simmered as stock) and figure out what to make for dinner. On a whim, I had ordered a duo of softshell crabs from FreshDirect, never having cooked them before but determined to do so while they are in season. Now, I’ve read enough Asian cookbooks to know that it is FROWNED UPON to cook any crab that is not alive and kicking – however, it is early in the season for softshells, they are presumably coming from some place warmer (Florida?), so they are unlikely to show up in Queens still wriggling (God forbid they were shipped up here live and they began to harden en route, the first bite would be painful).
It also happened that I had a bunch of collard greens, also purchased on a whim earlier that day at the supermarket. So – here’s my quick and dirty saturday dinner recipe – perfect for whenever you’ve spent all day prepping for cassoulet and also happen to have softshell crabs and collards in the fridge:
Garlic Pepper Crabs
2 softshell crabs, cleaned (just Google how to clean them, you have to cut the eye stalks off, etc.)
2 tsp. cracked black pepper (use a coffee grinder, mortar & pestle or, failing that, a food processor)
1.5 tbsps. minced garlic
3/4 cup peanut oil
You will also need a pan that can fit both crabs, a candy thermometer, a slotted spoon or spatula, and a splatter screen or just a cover for the pan if no splatter screen
1) Put the oil in the pan, heat to 375 degrees. This will take awhile. In the meantime, open all doors and windows and turn on your ventilation fan if you have one (and I hope you do, for your sake).
2) When the oil is heated, toss in a pinch of garlic and half the pepper, stir vigorously for fifteen seconds.
3) Lower in the crabs GENTLY – put the splatter screen or cover over the pan as soon as possible. Crabs are notorious for popping and snapping in the pan, showering bystanders in 375 degree oil. Cook for 3 minutes then flip the crabs over carefully, wearing an oven mitt if possible.
*note: you should be maintaining the heat at 375 degrees as the crabs cook. The temperature will drop when you add them to the oil, so don’t be afraid to goose the heat until it climbs back up).
4) Fry the crabs on the other side for another 2-3 minutes.
5) Add the remaining garlic and pepper, stirring vigorously and flipping the crabs at least once (you could also add a pinch of hot pepper flakes if so inclined). After 30 seconds, remove the crabs onto paper towels. Scoop up the garlic and pepper bits in the oil with a skimmer or slotted spoon and spread them over the crabs.
6) Season crabs with some salt, serve.
If making with crabs, prepare these first as they can just sit in the pot keeping warm while you focus on the crabs.
1) Rinse the collard leaves and cut lengthwise into 1-2 inch strips. Trim any particularly fat stems with paring knife.
2) Pile all the leaves into a large saucepan and turn on medium heat.
3) At this point, you should add some fat. Traditionally, it would be some fatback, ham hock, bacon fat, etc. The healthy alternative is a teaspoon or two of olive oil, I guess, but Southerners will likely ridicule you if they witness this. Add a generous grinding of black pepper. Put the lid on and cook.
4) As the collards release water, they will steam themselves. Check them every 10 minutes or so and add a little water (or chicken stock, beef stock, whatever) if they look dry, and also be sure to stir them.
5) Keep this up for 30-45 minutes, until they are fully wilted and look like properly cooked collard greens. If you want to test them, try one of the bigger stems -if it is tender, you are in good shape. Then turn the heat to low.
6) When ready to serve, pull out the fatback or ham hock if such a thing is in there, add salt to taste and serve.
7) For a nice touch, you can drizzle a little cider vinegar over the top of each serving of greens (don’t overdo it), and/or sprinkle with some toasted walnuts. Whether or not these are traditional additions, I don’t really care.
If executed with care, and served with some white rice and your favorite wine, these will make a perfectly acceptable saturday night dinner.
This is the post many of you have been eagerly anticipating. I mentioned in a previous post that deep-fried tarantulas are sold as a roadside snack in Cambodia, but I was not about to try those in particular after seeing the layers of dirt that coated them after vehicles went flying by. In Phnom Penh, I was able to find them on the menu at Romdeng, a reputable restaurant that I wrote about before, which serves fried tarantulas in a more sterile environment.
We didn’t see fried tarantula being sold everywhere in the country. Our guide in Siem Reap told us that they are the local delicacy of Skuon, a town about 45 miles outside of Phnom Penh near where he grew up. They appear to be abundantly available there in the local forests, although people also breed them. While no one really knows how fried tarantulas became a food source in Skuon, many believe that the starvation faced by millions of Cambodians during the dark era of Khmer Rouge rule has something to do with it.
So what do deep-fried tarantulas taste like? I found them rather tasty and would definitely eat them again. The chefs at Romdeng cover their version with a savory/sweet coating, almost like a watered-down barbecue sauce, before frying them to a crisp. The tarantulas were served with a pepper and lime dipping sauce that added heat while enhancing the savory/sweet coating with brightness from the citrus. The tarantulas themselves were very crunchy on the outside, while the inside was somewhat neutral in flavor (akin to chicken) with a nutty aftertaste. I think they would pair nicely with some cold beer while watching football. Spiders don’t scare me, so I had no trouble eating them. As a young child, I was already eating a variety of animals and their various parts long before consuming unique foods or offal became popular with foodies. Edna Krabappel had a little more trouble, but I give her credit for trying a small bit of the leg before giving up. Although Edna is usually an adventurous eater, the look and feel of the giant spiders were just a bit too much for her to fathom ingesting.