Hats off to the lowly crab. This summer Boston becomes land of the bean and the crab
IN Boston, where every restaurant serves the freshest of seafood - and where New England lobster is a must on every menu - one of the famous old landmark hotels, the Omni Parker House, has dared to be different. It's featuring crab dishes all summer long. You get the message if you walk within 100 feet of the downtown hotel, where a huge replica of an Alaskan king crab - 50 feet wide and 80 feet long from tip to claw - is anchored to the School Street marquee. Crab combinations range from an Alaskan Snow Crab Sandwich with peaches to Parker House Crab Cakes With Red Pepper Sauce. The big specialty is the New England Crab Dinner with ``all the fixings.'' This means fresh Cape Cod Rock Crabs are served with Clam Chowder, Sweet Corn on the Cob, Boston Baked Beans, and the hotel's original Boston Cream Pie.
But that's not all.
There are other delectable crab dishes such as Maryland Soft Shell Crab saut'eed with Lemon Caper Butter; Alaskan Snow Crab Clusters baked in casserole with Mornay Sauce; Saut'eed Veal With Alaskan Snow Crab and fresh asparagus; Baked Stuffed Shrimp With Lump Crabmeat Filling; Oriental Crab Balls With Sweet and Sour Sauce. And more - Cold Crab Claws by the piece and Cape Cod Rock Crabs, served whole with bashing directions and equipment.
A crab promotion is pretty daring for a hotel that has been known for classic American dishes such as the Boston Cream Pie - an all-time favorite - which was on the menu in 1856 when Harvey D. Parker opened his Boston hotel.
Then, the Parker House was host to distinguished members of the Saturday Club: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and John Greenleaf Whittier.
Mr. Parker opened the hotel after several years of running a Boston restaurant that may have been the first to serve food at any hour instead of at fixed times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
IT was at Parker's restaurant, under the leadership of its first executive chef, a Frenchman named Sanzian, that the first Parker House classics appeared on the menu - Parker's Tripe With Mustard Sauce, Cod's Tongues and Cheeks, Boston Scrod, and Boston Cream Pie.
But it was chef Ward, a German baker, who made Parker's a household word with the Parker House Rolls that are now included in almost every basic American cookbook. The soft, crustless dinner roll caused a stir in mid-19th century Boston society and was shipped as far west as Chicago.
Today executive chef Joseph Ribas continues the Omni Parker House tradition with new and innovating crab recipes for this first-class seafood, which has not been fully appreciated in New England, where lobster is the favored crustacean.
``The blue crab from the Chesapeake is probably the most familiar kind of crab, but New England has crab, too, as well as lobster,'' Mr. Ribas explains.
``I'm getting both the Maine crabs and some from Cape Cod. They have excellent flavor and are especially sweet. Right now we're also serving Dungeness crab from the Pacific coast, and this is the season when the soft-shell crabs are at their peak,'' he says.
Maryland soft shell crab is a delicacy and a delicious meal. The taste for this dish has spread from the Eastern Seaboard to all over the United States and even to other countries. This is the blue crab at its most succulent stage, when it is molting and the shell is soft enough to be eaten.
The blue crab is the third most important crustacean commercially, after shrimp and lobster. Something like 200 million blue crabs are taken from Chesapeake Bay each year, although they are found from Delaware Bay down to Florida and the Gulf states. Once exclusively American, the blue crab has been introduced into the Mediterranean Sea. The name comes from the blue color of the legs and the inner surface of the claws.
FOR a meal of boiled crabs at home, I strongly recommend a casual, ``community pick-out'' type of meal. Serve the crabs with a sauce or dip and crackers, a sharp knife, perhaps nutcrackers, but casually, as they do at the famous Baltimore crab house, Obrycki's.
There they cook them the years-old Maryland way with lots of spicy ``crab boil'' seasonings. The crabs are then dumped unceremoniously in the middle of the table that is covered with brown paper or newspapers. Longtime crab customers will eat 10 or a dozen at one sitting. There are no forks. Bibs, napkins, and wash-and-wear or very casual clothing are suggested.
Crabs must be cooked live. So the first thing to do at home is to boil or steam them until done, when the shells have turned red. The ``crab boil'' spices are added to the boiling water. This is a mixture of mustard seed, coriander seed, dill seed, cayenne pepper, allspice, and cloves. The mixture is widely available in packages or jars.
Shelling crabs can be a chore, especially if they're small. It takes a dozen blue crabs to produce a pound of crab meat, so it's more fun to pick and eat as you go along.
Florida is famous for its stone crab claws, larger than the Northern crab and usually served cold with hot melted butter and a dash of lemon. It is rich, sweet, and wonderful to eat.
The Alaskan king crab with its foot-long legs is the monster of this species. Shipped frozen around the world, the legs are the most succulent part and are often boiled or steamed before being frozen in the shell.
RIBAS says crab cakes are one of the most popular crab dishes. He's proud of his recipe made with ``not too many crumbs, a bit of fresh heavy cream, seasonings, and very fresh crab meat.''
``But our Oriental crab balls with ginger and sesame are a favorite this year, too,'' he says.
Chef at the hotel for 18 years, Ribas says the old specialties are still popular - the Parker House Rolls and Boston Shrod; and, although not on the menu, Grilled Tripe With Mustard Sauce is a classic the kitchen is always ready to dish up.
Along with the old recipes and the new crab dishes, the hotel also makes a super clam chowder, which was voted No. 1 in Boston's recent annual chowder contest. Here are two of the crab recipes.
Parker House Crab Cakes 16 ounces lump crab meat 1/2 red bell pepper, diced 1/2 yellow bell pepper, diced 1 medium onion, diced 2 shallots, diced 1 clove garlic, diced 1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped 2 cups cracker crumbs, unsalted 1 pint heavy cream 2 whole eggs, blended Flour Olive oil
Saut'e peppers, onions, shallots, and garlic in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Set aside and cool.
In a mixing bowl, add crab meat, parsley, basil, saut'eed onions, peppers, shallots, and garlic. Mix thoroughly. Add cream and about 1 cup of cracker crumbs. The mixture should be stiff enough to shape. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
Shape crab mixture into oval cakes. Dip into flour, then egg mixture, then remaining cracker crumbs. Shake off excess crumbs. Refrigerate for 1 hour. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in heavy skillet, saut'e cakes until golden brown. Ladle red pepper sauce onto plate. Present 2 cakes per person.
Makes 8 cakes.
Red Pepper Sauce 2 red bell peppers, skin, seeds removed, pur'eed 4 tablespoons heavy cream 1 tablespoon whole butter Salt and pepper to taste
Heat pur'eed peppers in saucepan to simmer. Add cream, and heat to reduce. Check seasonings, and just before serving whisk in butter. Makes sauce for 8 to 10 crab cakes.
Cape Cod Hard Shell Crabs, Parker House Style 1 gallon rich fish stock, preferably made with lobster bodies and halibut bones 2 fresh tomatoes, chopped 2 stalks celery, chopped 1 medium onion, chopped 2 cloves garlic, chopped fine 1 bay leaf 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1 lemon, juiced Salt and pepper 4 live Cape Cod hard shell crabs
Saut'e onions and garlic until translucent. Bring fish stock to simmer. Add tomatoes, celery, onions, garlic, bay leaf, and thyme. Simmer 15 minutes. Adjust broth with cayenne pepper, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Bring to a rolling boil.
Add crabs to broth 1 at a time to maintain boil. Cook 4 to 10 minutes or until shells are bright red. Serve in a bowl with broth to keep crab moist. Provide a board for bashing and a mallet or nutcrackers.
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.