French in a Flash: Sea Shells with Creamy Basil-Tarragon Pistou, Crab, and Sweet Peas Recipe

French in a Flash: Sea Shells with Creamy Basil-Tarragon Pistou, Crab, and Sweet Peas Recipe

This dish reminds me of that old tongue-twister: She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore. Luckily, these sea shells are easier to cook than those sea shells are to say. While we all think of pasta as Italian, it is as popular in France as it is in America, and this version is the marriage of two French mainstays: pistou and crabe royale.

My next statement is disputable, but I think of tarragon as the quintessential French herb. It is delicate and sweet, like a winsome basil with a licorice twist. Pistou is a Provençal sauce, and you can tell by its name that it is very similar to Italian pesto. French pistou is, like Italian pesto, made from garlic, basil, and olive oil, and sometimes Parmesan or sun-dried tomatoes, but it usually omits the nuts so definitive to the Italian version. The French toss it with pasta (the best pistou I ever had was on tortellini in Saint-Tropez), or spoon it onto bread, but it is most renowned in French cuisine for the southern Soupe au Pistou, a green vegetable, brothy soup, into which the garlicky, herby pistou is stirred last minute, imparting a definitive and fresh punch. Because tarragon is so similar to basil and pairs so perfectly with seafood, I match the two herbs in this fresh take on the classic sauce.

Crabe royale is a dish that frequently makes a star appearance on the menus of Parisian bistros—basically, it is crab salad, creamy and succulent. I make a sauce for these shells by combining my basil-tarragon pistou with crabe royale in the form of jumbo lump crab meat and cream. I punctuate the pasta with sweet, bubbly petites pois, or baby peas. It is whimsical and elegant, fragrant, hearty, and decadent. And it's ready in the time it takes to cook the pasta. All there is to do is drop the shells into the boiling water, whir the pistou ingredients together in the food processor, and combine the hot pasta with the pistou, peas, crab, and cream. Within minutes you are on the Cote d'Azur, basking like Rosemary Hoyt in the heat of a Riviera afternoon. Bon app!

A Note on Some Ingredients

Tarragon can be an acquired taste for some, or a difficult shopping acquisition for others. If you don't like it, or can't find it, replace the 4 stems of tarragon in this recipe with 4 leafy stems of basil.

Petite pois, sometimes called baby peas, are readily available in the freezer section at the grocery store. If you can't find them, just use the same amount of regular frozen peas.

Crab meat comes in grades. There is imitation crab, claw meat, and lump crab meat, in ascending order. I like to use the jumbo lump crab meat, which is body meat, because it is chunkier and so feels heftier, imparting that sweet-sea bite. But it can be pricey, so if you don't find any at a good price, use the claw meat. I would, however, not recommend using the imitation here, which is normally reserved for California rolls in sushi restaurants.


  • 1 pound sea shell pasta
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 ounces basil, the leaves of which will equal about 1 cup packed
  • The leaves from 4 stems tarragon
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup thawed frozen petite peas
  • 1 pound jumbo lump crab meat


  1. 1.

    Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt it, and add in the pasta shells. Stir, and cook until al dente. Drain.

  2. 2.

    Meanwhile, make the pistou. Obliterate the garlic clove in the food processor, and then add the basil and tarragon leaves. Pulse to chop. Add in the lemon zest, lemon juice, pepper, and a good amount of salt. Run the machine and drizzle in the olive oil. Decant the pistou to a bowl, and stir in the Parmesan cheese.

  3. 3.

    Once you've drained the pasta, put the pot back on the stove on low heat. Add in the cream, pistou, peas, and crab meat. Make sure you go through the crab meat to make sure there are no shells, and to break it up a bit. Toss and heat through.

  4. 4.

    Add the pasta back into the pot, and toss to combine. Serve immediately.