MARY is racing to finish another book, so I’ve taken over the kitchen for as long as she can stand it. Thus far she has been long-suffering in a very literal sense, complaining only about the heat quotient. This results from the fact that, at the last Gardening Which tasting session, Michael Michaud generously distributed his surplus of chilli peppers. Such riches should not be allowed to go to waste, and so the innocent and tender-tongued must suffer.
In our household, Saturday Night is Crab Night. Our usual practice is to dress it roughly and leave the final extraction to the dinner table, a leisurely process in which, like cave explorers, we delve deeply into every nook and cranny. But this would have wasted Mary’s valuable time at the keyboard, and so I undertook the Augean task single-handed. This, I thought, would be an ideal occasion to experiment with some exotic crab recipe, perhaps from my Provincetown Portuguese legacy.
But such mixtures date from times when seafood flowed like water and they are so strongly flavoured that the crab is in danger of becoming a medium, detectable only by its short stringy texture; only those crabs which are on the outer edge of edibility benefit from such drastic treatment. This week’s crab proved to be one of our best, with a delicate flavour and an inner liquidity which produced a bowl of meat swimming in its own juices. Even the small claws were worth the effort of extraction, providing generous flesh of a moistness equal to the body.
And so the search was on for a recipe which would add a bare minimum to the already perfect flavour. The usual candidates were either swimming in cream, such as Thermidor or Newburg, or in deep fat, like the various versions of pan-fried crab cakes. Something more modest was required.
AND thus Fisherman's Pie came into being. I’m sure that, like all simple and obvious recipes, it has been invented many times over. All that was required was a small baking dish containing a layer of crab meat and a topping of mashed potato, each classically unadorned. While the baking dish was pre-heating under a low grill, the WHITE CRAB MEAT was gently sweated in “the best BUTTER”, then the BROWN MEAT stirred in at the last minute to remain fully liquid, with the final addition of a small dollop of Raines SMATANA (sour cream minceur), a squirt of LEMON JUICE and a modicum of SALT AND PEPPER.
A couple of large mealy Cyprus POTATOES had been previously peeled, boiled and mashed over low heat with a generous square of BUTTER and enough MILK to make them creamy, then seasoned to taste. (I gave myself the anticipatory treat of test-tasting the crab and potato together, to make certain they were compatibly seasoned. It required a second generous sample to be sure.)
The baking dish was topped with the mashed potato, forked for texture and then browned under a hot grill for a couple of minutes, the potato protecting the crab from over-cooking. The result was inviting to look at and, most important, allowed the flavour of the crab to come through with a vividness that preserved its exceptional quality. Sometimes less is more.
A simple side SALAD accompanied it: a round dish with a circle of small inner leaves of round LETTUCE, each topped with a slice of vine-ripened TOMATO, lightly SUGARED, slightly moistened with a few drops of Alighieri OLIVE OIL and BALSAMIC VINEGAR (produced by Dante’s family since 1353) and topped with a discrete sprinkling of SALAD HERBS.
If there’s Fisherman's Pie in the Sky, I’m prepared to meet my Maker.
ATTENTION ALL COOKBOOK EDITORS: Please note that the above recipe does not contain a single precise measurement.
©1999 John Whiting, Diatribal Press
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