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Middle East meets Eastern Shore via crab soup

CookingRecipesDining and DrinkingRestaurantsNanaLebanon

"People live on memories of food."

— Pauline Guiragoss

The Eastern Shore met the Middle East in East Baltimore recently when a woman from Tilghman Island taught a woman from Lebanon to make Maryland crab soup.

It began with a passing comment in The Baltimore Sun's Taste section: "The best crab soup I've ever had is made by … Kelly Belk, who puts a deep tang into her broth with cabbage."

The mention was enough for Beirut native and Canton restaurateur Pauline Guiragoss to ask her friend Belk for a lesson in preparing Chesapeake Bay crab soup the traditional way.

"All the recipes I've learned are from my friends," said the well-traveled Guiragoss, 49, who with husband John Curtis owned three restaurants before opening Gitan Bistro Cru at the corner of Fait and South Kenwood avenues.

"Whatever culture I'm in, I want to learn what they eat and how they make it," Guiragoss said. "My food is what I know from living everywhere."

It wasn't that long ago that everywhere did not include Crabtown, USA. Though their earlier restaurants were not that far away — Cedars in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, Hard Times Cafe in Laurel and the Wild Buffalo Grill in Savage — they were nowhere close to the blessed burg of backfin.

Now, Guiragoss and Curtis are within sight of the Baltimore waterfront. "Every day we have people coming in asking for crab cakes," said Curtis, a gemologist who met Guiragoss while working at a Lebanese jewelry store in McLean, Va.

(The couple's first date was a night at the Warner Theater to watch the tango on stage. Their son Emanuel, 17, was conceived in Ocean City the first weekend that Guiragoss was introduced to steamed crabs by Curtis' family. Their restaurant's motto is: "Get fresh with us …")

Designed by Curtis with salvaged wood from the Second Chance outlet near Camden Yards, Gitan opened December 2011 in a building that last housed Chazz & Renee's, a neighborhood saloon with a bar of teal Formica. When those owners sold, they took the shuffleboard with them.

The corner business had previously been Raab's, before that Fed's Rainbow, and before that Bill Ciosek's Crest tavern. Somewhere along the line, it was Corky's, and long before any of these gin mills, it was known as Rose Patrone's — for the barmaid who owned it.

The Gitan menu reflects Guiragoss — Christian-born in Lebanon of Armenian and Turkish ancestry — and her background.

Called "Lulu" by her mother — which is Arabic for "pearl" — Guiragoss spent her early years in Beirut. She remembers a bounty of fresh fish and oysters there, but nothing like the Maryland crab. She came of age in Paris, moving there at 17 with her parents Antoine (who was on hand for the crab soup trial run) and her late mother, Sarah.

In Paris, she learned to make exquisite vinaigrette while working at the restaurant L'Entrecote off the Champs-Elysees. The dressing is available at Gitan along with minced beef spiced with cinnamon, cloves and red pepper; brie-filled French omelets finished in the broiler; and Armenian kebabs.

But until now, Guiragoss (who moved to the United States in 1993) and Curtis (the son of an Army officer who was also a West Point graduate) had not ventured into the delicacies for which the Free State is best known.

This is where the friendship with Belk, a veteran restaurant worker and vintage-clothing merchant, came in.

Currently a bartender at the Black Olive restaurant on South Bond Street, Belk is a Highlandtown girl by birth and spent childhood summers on Tilghman Island. She moved to the island off the shores of Talbot County in 1975, fresh out of her teens.

There, she watched with pride as her maternal grandmother — the late Doris Hutchins Higbee — harvested the Choptank River as expertly as any man.

"Nana was a legend on Tilghman," said Belk, who remembers taking Higbee out on a boat at the end of her life so grandmother could fish for rockfish one last time. "She was still going out to catch crabs in her 70s."

The July 16, 1986, issue of The New Yorker magazine — drawn by the late Tilghman resident Susan Davis — shows a woman believed to be Higbee wading in the Choptank with a crabbing net and a dog.

"Nana would go out in the morning with a bushel basket floating in an inner tube and her dog Freida to hunt for soft crabs," said Belk. "Freida would dig the crabs up from the mud and Nana would scoop 'em up. That was her breakfast — sauteed soft crabs and eggs."

It is Higbee's recipe for crab soup that Belk — whose mother, Jackie Whitelaw Criss, tended bar at the Harrison House Country Inn on Tilghman for decades — ised to immerse Guiragoss in Maryland cooking.

Hard crabs, which are cleaned live and halved in many recipes, were not used on Guiragoss' maiden voyage; she used six pounds of blue crab claw meat from Indonesia ($21 a pound) for a big double batch.

"The bacon's been reduced, we've caramelized the onions, and the beef and chicken stock is ready," said Belk on the night she joined Guiragoss in the tight kitchen above Gitan. "When we add the vegetables, we're done."

Done, however, did not include the final touch: a generous garnish of "Best Yet" Maryland lump ($26 a pound) atop each bowl just before serving.

And Guiragoss went far beyond soup, which was served as the appetizer before palates were overwhelmed, with a select group of guests on a night Gitan was closed.

With the gusto of a true Mediterranean gourmand, the menu was rounded out with a half-dozen baked rockfish (2 to 4 four pounds each) with a butter sauce of shallots and garlic. Guiragoss gets many of her fresh herbs from the gardens of neighbors who come by on Monday nights to treat her to what they can do in the kitchen.

In the center of the long table was a small mountain of shrimp steamed in beer and served with celery; fresh green beans and a wet cornbread Belk grew up with on the Shore — dense and sleek, more like pudding than bread. The meal was complemented by glasses of Oakey Dokey chardonnay from the St. Michaels Winery. Dessert was Smith Island cake shipped overnight from the town of Ewell, and espresso.

It was all better than good, worthy of a long shot in the Stanley Tucci movie "Big Night," a chapter from M.F.K. Fisher or dinner at your house.

And if you show up at Gitan hankering for the crab soup you remember from summer nights in your grandmother's kitchen with the Orioles playing ball on the radio, it's just a ladle away

Nana Doris' Tilghman Island crab soup

"This is true Maryland crab soup. It really is," says Kelly Belk. "You gotta have the cabbage."

Makes about 8 servings

3-4 strips of bacon

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

4 quarts water

2 tablespoons beef stock

2 tablespoons chicken stock

2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning, a little more if preferred

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

6 cleaned and halved live Maryland blue crabs or 18 crab claws (optional)

3 cups petite diced tomatoes from can

1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

1 1/2 cups sliced carrots

1 1/2 cups diced parsley

1 1/2 cups white corn

1 1/2 cups fresh string beans

1 1/2 cups frozen lima beans

1 cup diced green cabbage

3 stalks celery, chopped

2-3 cups cubed red potatoes

1 pound claw crab meat

1 pound lump Maryland crab meat

Chopped parsley to garnish

In a large stockpot, fry bacon until crisp. Remove and crumble.

Put bacon back in pot and brown the onion. Add green beans and saute a few moments. Add water with chicken and beef stock, Worcestershire, bay leaves, sugar and desired salt and pepper until sugar dissolves.

Add blue crabs or claws, if using, and bring to a boil. Skim froth. Add tomatoes and Tabasco, carrots, celery, corn, lima beans, and cabbage. Bring to low boil for 10 minutes.

Add potatoes and cook until tender.

Add claw meat and cook for 10 minutes. Add half of the lump crab until warm. Put 2 tablespoons of remaining lump crab on top of each bowl of soup just before serving.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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