Summertime is the perfect time to enjoy the outdoors, and in my neck of the woods, that means heading out to the water.
This is Virginia’s Low Country, an area surrounded by creeks and streams and rivers that wind through brackish marshes as they filter their way to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. This area is the starting point not only for the commonwealth but for the nation. It was here, on a spring morning in 1607, that three ships led by Captain Christopher Newport — the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery — ended their 144-day voyage from England. They anchored off Cape Henry near the present-day city of Virginia Beach, an event now referred to as the First Landing.
When Newport’s crew of 104 men and boys, among them John Smith, who would later head up the Jamestown Colony, came ashore, they marveled at the richness of the New World. Crew member George Percy wrote of “meddowes and goodly tall Trees, with such Freshwaters running through the woods, as I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof.” The ships eventually made their way into “the Bay of Chesupioc” and up what is now the James River, looking for a suitable site to colonize. They found it in Jamestown — the first permanent English settlement in North America, established by the group under the Virginia Company of London on May 14, 1607.
The early settlers found an abundance of food on both land and sea, including Callinectes sapidus, the blue crab. Its scientific/Latin name means “beautiful swimmer that is savory,” an apt description. Blues, nowhere near the size of some of their cousins, such as Dungeness and king crab, are jewel-hued gems of sweet meat. They are usually harvested when their shell is hard, and the whole crab is steamed or boiled, then cracked open to get inside. Sometimes blues are caught as they begin to molt and, once their hard shell is discarded, are cooked up in their soft state and eaten whole — legs and all, after being broiled or sautéed.
Although premium crabmeat is available across the country, there is nothing quite like catching crabs yourself, throwing them in a pot of hot water, and picking through the hard shell, which turns red when cooked. Across Virginia Low Country it’s not uncommon to see folks crabbing, using either crab pots or even long lengths of string that are baited (chicken necks work great), trying to get enough blues for an evening supper. One of my favorite ways to enjoy this delicacy is with a simple crab salad (see below for a recipe I’ve shared from my book, Dishing Up® Virginia). You can use blues you catch or a premium meat you purchase at the store.
In the cool of the evening, as the sky turns a milky lavender and stars begin to pop out and twinkle, we like to gather by the water and enjoy a cocktail or two, such as a Southern Sangria, which is also a recipe in my book.
As suppertime passes, and the sky becomes a Prussian blue, we sit, satisfied with our meal, and finish the rest of the sangria, raising the last glass to toast summer.
Crab Salad Lettuce Wraps
makes 4–6 servings
- 2 cups backfin crabmeat*
- 1 cup chopped celery stalks
- ¼ cup chopped red bell pepper
- ¼ cup chopped green bell pepper
- ¼ cup chopped red onion
- 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon sour cream
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1⁄8 teaspoon celery seed
- 1 head iceberg lettuce
- ¼ teaspoon paprika
- ¼ cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
- Mix the crabmeat, celery, red bell pepper, green bell pepper, and onion together in a medium bowl. Whisk the mayonnaise, sour cream, lemon juice, salt, black pepper, and celery seed together in a small bowl. Pour the mayonnaise mixture over the crab mixture, and toss to combine. Cover, and refrigerate at least 4 hours before serving.
- Chill the iceberg lettuce thoroughly, and carefully remove the leaves so they remain whole and intact.
- Fill each lettuce leaf with a heaping spoonful of the crab salad mixture. Garnish with the paprika and parsley, fold over, and serve.
This adapted recipe creates a Crab Salad Melt.
Heat up the grill. Brush some baguettes that have been cut in half with a mixture of olive oil and butter; and toast, cut side down, until slightly golden and grill marks appear. From there cut baguettes into individual servings, and pile each high with prepared crab salad. Set a slice of baby Swiss cheese on top of each serving, and place it back on the cool spot of the grill. Close the lid, and allow the baguettes to sit just long enough for the indirect heat to melt the cheese. Serve each slice with some dressed arugula greens on top.
Which Crabmeat Should I Use?
Meat from different parts of the crab is usually sold by type, as each differs in flavor and consistency from the others. Here is a guide to selecting the right type for a recipe.
Jumbo lump. These large pieces of meat from the body cavity are good for sautéed crab, crab cakes, salads, and garnishes.
Backfin. Smaller than jumbo lump, these chunks of white meat from the backfin cavity are often used in crab cakes, sautéed crab, salads, and garnishes.
Claw meat. This dark, rich meat has a stronger flavor that is more suitable for soups, stews, and crab cakes than for salads.
Special grade. These small bits of white meat from the body cavity give flavor to baked dishes and recipes with sauces.