The best soft crabs in the world are, of course, found right here in Maryland. But the second best can be found down in Louisiana where chef Emeril Lagasse covers his Gulf Coast soft crabs with nuts.
I ate these crunchy crabs during a visit to New Orleans several years ago. They were so good I considered changing my legal residence from Maryland to a table in Emeril's restaurant.
Recently, when I got my hands on "Emeril's New Orleans Cooking" (William Morrow, $23) I immediately turned to the index and looked under "crabs." I couldn't find the nut-covered crab recipe. I was crestfallen, lower than a snake in a wagon rut. but I wasn't beaten.
I wanted that recipe. So I tracked Lagasse down, finally catching up with him early one morning in New York where he was on a publicity tour for his book. We sat down over breakfast and, before the orange juice hit the table, I was all over him, asking why his fabled soft crab recipe was being kept secret.
Lagasse, a handsome man with black hair and dark eyebrows, smiled. The technique was in the book, he said. It was the same technique used in his recipe for pecan-crusted lemon fish.
Quickly I opened the cookbook and read that he gave the seafood a triple baptism of seasoning, then milk, then nuts, before cooking it in hot oil. Having cracked the mystery of the nut-covered crab, I had a great sense of well-being.
Things were going so well that Lagasse answered more questions about how he cooks seafood. Sometimes for Sunday brunch at home with family and friends, Lagasse said, he makes a savory cheesecake with wild mushrooms and crab meat. "That sweet, earthy flavor of mushroom sets the crab meat off," he said. He suggested putting Parmesan cheese in crab cakes to "round out the flavors." And he said you could even toss crab meat into his seafood doughnuts -- Lagasse's recipe takes beignets, the famous New Orleans bits of fried dough, and inserts bits of seafood into them.
By the time Lagasse started talking about how he serves fried oysters on greens, dousing them with sauce made of buttermilk and Pernod, I was so hungry I could have eaten the salt shaker.
Recipes for all these dishes are in Lagasse's book. As I looked them over, I saw that to make his food, you are required to cook -- not beep a microwave, but actually spend time in the kitchen. Lagasse is a stickler for making his own stocks, sauces and seasonings.
Lagasse and I discussed other great issues. The importance, for instance, of putting ripe banana in the crust of your banana cream pie. But time was short. He had to catch a plane to Boston, the next stop on his book tour. I had to catch a train to Baltimore and try my hand at soft crabs with pecans.
Emeril Lagasse's pecan-crusted crabs
4 soft crabs, cleaned
3 tablespoons Creole seasoning (see below)
2 cups all-purpose flour (divided use)
1 cup ground pecans
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
1/4 cup olive oil
Sprinkle 3/4 teaspoon seasoning over each crab and pat it on with your hands.
In a bowl, combine 1 cup flour with 1 tablespoon seasoning. In another bowl, combine pecans with remaining 1 cup of flour and remaining 2 tablespoons seasoning. In a third bowl, beat eggs together with milk.
Dredge seasoned crabs first in seasoned flour, then in egg wash and finally in pecan-flour mixture. Gently shake off excess.
Heat oil in large skillet over high heat and saute the crabs (shell side down first) until golden brown, about 3 minutes a side.
Yield 3/4 cup.
2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried leaf oregano
1 tablespoon dried leaf thyme
Combine all ingredients thoroughly and store in airtight container.