My mother would have been 93 years old today, but she passed away 17 years ago. As she was a wonderful cook, I could think of no better tribute than to make the dish she made that I loved most - buccatini with blue crab sauce, especially since I managed to come across some nice live blue crabs this past Thursday at the new Asian Market just outside of Albany, N.Y. Did I mention that this happens to be my all-time favorite dish? Unfortunately, this dish really relies on using live crabs, something I have generally been unable to find up here until now. Since the crabs must be used live, I made the sauce on Thursday evening with the help of my two eldest sons. Half the fun was teaching them how to handle and clean the crabs and make the sauce.
To try to make the process of dispatching the crabs as humane as possible, I left them out in the cold porch until I was ready to use them then I followed the process recommended by James Peterson in his book Fish & Shellfish. This involved putting a knife behind the crab's eyes and pushing down and around, followed quickly by removing the crab's apron. At this point, the crab was still moving from residual neural activity though slowed by knife to the brain and I took the time to clean the crabs as best I could. The next step is the most difficult and the most important. Separating the back carapace from the body is achieved by gently pulling back from side to side until it separates from the body, taking care not to break the shell. Once removed the backs are reserved and the gills removed from the body. All the other internal structures are left intact.
The next step is to stuff the top shells with a bread crumb mixture. Horror of horrors, my mother used to use seasoned bread crumbs from 4C or Progresso, which clearly worked well, at least as far as I was concerned. I didn't have them in my pantry though, so I made my own with unseasoned bread crumbs and dried basil and oregano. Like my mother, I added salt, pepper and fresh grated parmigiano. I wish that I could report the proportions, but I added them until they looked about right. In the future, I would remove the dried basil and replace it with parsley. Once mixed, I stuffed the tops of the shells so that they were fully packed plus a little extra and drizzled olive oil on top. The tops were then paired to the bodies and secured by tying butcher's twine around the combination, cinching it tight and tying a knot.
The only internal structures I remove are the gills
For the sauce, I chopped a medium size onion and cooked it in oilve oil until translucent at which time I added minced garlic and parsley, continuing to cook on low-medium heat. I used two large cans of San Marzano DOP tomatoes, two cans of water and a small can of tomato paste and let that simmer, adding salt and pepper to taste.
Once the sauce has simmered until it was hot to taste and the tomatoes started to break up, I puréed the sauce with a stick blender until smooth. With the sauce no simmering on a low heat, I added the stuffed and trussed crabs, making sure that they were all covered by tomato sauce. After simmering for approximately two hours, I removed the sauce from the heat, let it cool and reserved it in the refrigerator for the next night, letting the flavors meld.
The next day I let the sauce heat up on low heat over the afternoon and kept it on a low simmer, adding enough water to thin the sauce a little early in the afternoon. Once our guests arrived, I cooked 500g of imported buccatini pasta (thick, hollow, spaghetti-like pasta) and mixed it with the hot sauce in a warmed pasta bowl. The crabs were reserved to serve after the pasta.
The sauce was not quite up to my mother's, but it was a close enough approximation and the best I have ever made. I think she would have been proud.
The crabs that followed were full and delicious. The stuffing was always a favorite of mine and it was again. There were enough crabs so that everyone who was eating them could have two. They require a lot of work and determination to eat them fully, but the net result is more than worth it. My family seemed to agree.
Happy birthday, Ma!