Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Got the Chesapeake Blues

I'm not sure how I managed to fritter away the summer without a single fishing trip (with the notable exception of my catfish noodling adventure - click here), but it happened. Now that I live among some of the best trout fishing water in the Southeast, it's unconscionable that I haven't picked up a fly rod. I will remedy the situation soon.
So it was with great anticipation that I drove to Virginia's Eastern Shore last week with Sue to visit her parents. Their house on the bayside offers immediate access to Hungar's Creek and all the fish and crabs it holds. My enthusiasm continued to mount upon our late-night arrival, when my mother-in-law, Sally, informed me my first job in the morning would be to check the crab traps she had put over the side of the dock earlier in the day.
At the appointed hour, I walked down to the water in my pajamas, coffee in hand, (this is not the Bering Sea you know) to inspect the catch. The first trap held nine beautiful blue crabs; the second had three more. I checked the bait (roasted chicken carcasses) and dropped the traps back in to keep catching while my mind started to spin over the coming menu. Crab cakes are a classic, but I've done the the last three or four times we've visited the Eastern Shore. It was time for something different.
After breakfast, I went to the garage and cobbled together a couple of bottom rigs from my father-in-law, Hank's, ample fishing stores. A quick trip to the roadside fishmonger for some bait shrimp and I was ready to go. In the past, I have caught weakfish (gray trout) and Atlantic croaker from Sally and Hank's dock. I was hoping for more of the same on this trip. I baited two rods up and cast them into the creek, propped them on dock pilings and sat back to wait. It didn't take long for the first nibble. In less than five minutes, I had a fight on my hands, but my adversary wasn't either of the usual suspects - it was an American eel of around 18 inches. Now, if I had access to a motorboat and the big water of the Chesapeake, I would have turned that eel into striped bass bait. Stripers, or rockfish as they called south of Delaware, love to eat a lively eel. Instead, I considered my slimy catch and all of the cultures around the world that love to eat it. Most Americans by now have had Japanese cured eel (called unagi) in their supermarket sushi boxes, but eels are treated like culinary gold wherever they swim. We would eat this eel. I just needed to think about how to clean it and prepare it.
Got em on!
By then, Sue had come down to the dock. She was a little surprised at my decision to keep the eel, but she didn't make me let it go. Just as she settled down to enjoy the view and a little sunshine, one of the rod tips started bouncing and I directed her to capture the perpetrator. The fight that followed was epic. Our hero gained line and lost line as the great fish slashed back and forth out in the murky water. Eventually Sue worked the fish in to the point where she was going to have to lead it between two pilings like a field goal kicker. Just as I informed her of this tricky, but required maneuver, the line went slack and the fish was gone. I thought it had wrapped itself on a piling and broken the line, but closer inspection revealed the knot I had tied at the swivel had failed. My fault. No matter; in less than 10 minutes, we had caught an eel and lost something substantial. I figured the bite was on, and while Sue fumed back to the house, I rebaited and set the lines out again.
The next strike came as quickly as the first two, but this time there was no tentative nibble. This was a steady, powerful surge on the line that threatened to drag the rod overboard before I could reach it. When I set the hook, the monster just kept on going without regard to drag (set at it's highest level - stupid) and within seconds broke off. I had a theory for what it was that was born out when I reeled up what was left of my rig. The creature had broken off a brand new croaker hook at the bend. Only one denizen of Hungar's Creek is capable of such feats of strength - the stingray.
I wasn't too disappointed about the ray. Heck, if the fight had gone on much longer than it did, the fish probably would have made off with half of my line too and been doomed to die in a hopeless tangle of monofilament. By then, however, the action died off and all I managed over the course of two hours was to feed the crabs, small fish and Lord knows what all else bits of shrimp to no avail.
By late afternoon, another four blue crabs had entered the traps and it was time to process the catch. To be legal, blue crabs must measure 5 inches from point to point across their carapace. Female crabs carrying eggs must be released, but most of my 16 crabs were males and none of the females had eggs so into the pot they went.
I decided to steam this batch without any seasoning at all so that we could chose later how to enjoy the sweet, succulent meat without any cooked in flavors to sully the deal. 18 minutes in Sally's big steamer did the trick, and the crustaceans came out bright orange and ready for the refrigerator to halt the cooking process.
16 crabs ... whaddaya get?
We left them in there overnight and the next day, Sue and I brought the cooked crabs down to the dock for picking. It goes without saying that picking a pile of blue crabs on the Chesapeake Bay requires a bottle or two of beer and that's how we spent the next hour and a half. To anyone who wrinkles their nose at the thought of shelling out $21 or more for a pound of lump meat crab at the fish market, I challenge you to pick your own pound out of a mess of in-shell crabs. The process is ... time consuming, not to mention the dozens of nicks and cuts your hands receive from all those sharp points and edges that bristle from every surface of a blue crab. Ah but the meat, the beautiful meat. Sue and I plucked just over 2 cups of white lump and knuckle meat from our crabs, and another 1-3/4 cups of sweet claw meat.
For the white meat, I decided to try a pasta. I could have easily just made something up, but I decided to look through Sally's collection of cookbooks for inspiration. When I saw one of my favorites "On Top of Spaghetti" by Killeen and Germon (click here) I figured I couldn't go wrong with the "gently spiced crab spaghettini," but I was. Looking back at the recipe, it seems Killeen and Germon must have decided their book needed a crab recipe and threw this one together. The pasta is sauced with clam brine and seasoned with pepper and salt. To this you add the crab meat, where it becomes completely overwhelmed by the salty elements and is lost in the dish. Two cups of hard-fought crab meat down the drain. It would have been a complete failure if not for the eel, which I filleted (following some online video instruction), lightly dusted in seasoned flour and sauteed in butter and lemon. Wow, what a flavorful fish. If I had to do it over again, I'd skin the eel before cooking. American eels have thick, fatty skin that is both delicious and hard to chew. The ladies at the table had a hard time getting past the rubbery skin to enjoy the succulent eel and I'm not sure I blame them, though I had no problem downing a second helping.
The next crab meal I made sure the crab was king. I took the claw meat and made quesadillas topped with a mango salsa. I moistened the crab with a little mayo and added a sliced scallion and some Old Bay seasoning. It was excellent. The next time I try this, I'll go in an Asian direction and maybe make scallion pancakes for the quesadillas and use cilantro and ginger in my crab mix.
For the rest of the week, the hook-and-line fishing was a complete bust and the crab pots were slow to fill. To pass the dry spell, I drove 12 miles down the peninsula, just past Cape Charles to one of my favorite truck stops, Stingray's, which Michael Stern of "Road Food" fame recently wrote a review of here. I stopped in for breakfast on my way to the hawkwatch platform at Kiptopeke State Park, and ordered my usual scrapple, egg and cheese on a bagel. Doesn't that look incredible?
I think of how much time and money I've spent at Stingray's over the years. It's an institution on the Eastern Shore. My only regret this visit was that I only ordered one item. If you order more than one, or order in a group, the long-standing joke is that the counter staff will screw up your food one way or another. The joke remains funny because everything is good; it doesn't matter what you get in the brown paper bag - just eat it.
With time running short, I had just one more opportunity to cook from the bay. The traps provided another dozen crabs, which I picked with much greater efficiency the second time around. I stopped at the fish market and selected a couple of nice rockfish (striped bass) fillets. For these, I mixed up a crab stuffing; white and claw meat, 1 egg, mayo, Old Bay, and piled it high on top of the fish. I lay these down in an oven-proof pan with some olive oil, lemon juice and crushed garlic on the bottom and topped them with panko bread crumbs which I added grated pecorino cheese and moisten it with olive oil. I threw the "stuffed" fish into a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes (I knew I could get away with the long cook time because the crab layer was so thick) and behold, the best meal of the week. The crab complimented the fish beautifully and the panko bread crumbs browned up just like I wanted them to. Served with a mushroom and herb risotto and a garden salad and the dish was ready to go up against the big boys.
You know, with all of my recent success catching, processing and cooking crabs, maybe I will head north for the opilio crab season. I understand the Time Bandit is looking for a new greenhorn.

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