"If you can get your hands on some blue crabs and a can of Old Bay you'll see why this regional soup deserves attention."
For the brief time I lived in Baltimore, one thing that struck me most was how a city can be so fiercely passionate about a little crustacean, namely the blue crab. For restaurants in Baltimore and much of Maryland, it's pretty much a prerequisite to have at least one if not several crab dishes on the menu.
Blue or Maryland crab as it's known down there shows up in all forms: creamy mayonnaisey crab dip, crab cakes, and as a topping for everything you can imagine from filet mignon to potato skins. And if there is soup to be served, chances are better than good that it's going to be Maryland Crab.
It's been years since I've lived in Baltimore but memories of this spicy, crab-heavy tomato-based soup came flooding back to me when I came across this recipe in The Best Soups in the World by Clifford A. Wright.
There are two uniquely Chesapeake components of this soup: plenty of blue crab meat, painstakingly hand-picked but worth every second of effort, and the copious use of Old Bay seasoning.
Old Bay is something of a miracle seasoning. You can sprinkle it on just about anything and the deliciousness factor goes up tenfold. This yellow can of mystery spices can do wonders on corn on the cob, deviled eggs, bloody marys, and French fries, but Old Bay is an absolute must for anything crab-related, especially Maryland Crab Soup.
Aside from the picking of the crab meat, this soup is fairly easy to assemble. The whole, live crabs are thrown into a pot of water and canned tomatoes make a simple stock for the soup. After the crabs have infused the broth with all of the goodness from the shells, they are taken out, cooled, then picked clean of their meat. (No need to fear if you are a crab-picking novice, we've included a step-by-step guide after the recipe.) The rest of the vegetables are placed in the crab broth along with a bit of bacon (why not?) which is cooked briefly and the soup is finished with the picked crab meat and claw meat.
If you can get your hands on some blue crabs and a can of Old Bay you'll see why this regional soup deserves attention outside the Chesapeake Bay area.
- 1/2 pound thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch squares
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 8 quarts water
- One 35-ounce can plum tomatoes
- 12 fresh blue crabs (about 3 pounds) or 2 Dungeness crabs, cut in half (or 12 blue crab carcasses)
- 1 1/2 cups chopped celery
- 1 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels (about 3 cobs)
- 1 1/2 cups 1/4-inch-dice green beans
- 1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen peas
- 1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen lima beans
- 1 1/2 cups diced potatoes
- 3 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning 1 tablespoon red chile flakes
- 3 tablespoons salt
- 1 pound fresh crab claw meat, picked over
In a skillet, cook the bacon and onion over medium-high heat, stirring, until half-cooked and not yet crispy, about 8 minutes. Set aside.
In a large stockpot, add the water and tomatoes and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the live crabs and boil for 12 minutes. Remove the crabs and set aside to cool. (If using carcasses, leave them in the pot.) Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, remove the meat from the crabs and set aside. As this is mysteriously complicated unless you are from Maryland, see the instructions below for guidance on how to shell a crab.
After the soup has been simmering for 1 hour, add the celery, corn, green beans, peas, lima beans, potatoes, Old Bay seasoning, red chile flakes, and the reserved bacon and onion; if you have used crab carcasses and shells, strain the soup before adding the vegetables and discard the shells. Simmer until the vegetables are cooked, about 30 minutes. Season with salt. Add the reserved crab meat and add the fresh claw meat, stir, and serve.
How to Pick Crabs
Twist off the claws and legs.
Place the crab on its back and pull the apron up and off.
Cut the bottom shell just under the mouth with a knife.
Press your thumbs into this space you've created and lift off the top shell.
Remove and discard the spongy white gills, which are inedible.
Snap the crab body into halves.
Twist off the back fins.
Crack the claws with a mallet to remove the claw meat. Remove the meat from the other parts with a nut pick.