Eric Akis: Sumptuous Dungeness crab for all with bisque

Crab is potentially expensive, but you can solve that problem by preparing bisque for your guests

Eric Akis

Dungeness crab is sumptuous, but if you want to feed six guests a whole one each, it can be an expensive proposition.

There is a way, though, to turn one large Dungeness crab into something that will give each of those guests a sublime and satisfying serving: Make bisque.

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Bisque can be made with vegetables or even poultry, but in Michael Ruhlman’s book The Elements of Cooking, he describes it as thick, creamy, crustacean-based soup.

East Coast lobster is a popular crustacean often used to make bisque. But after making it with local Dungeness crab the past many years, I’ve learned it yields bisque with an equally divine flavour.

My process starts with a bit of fussy work: extracting all the luscious meat from a Dungeness crab that you’ve cooked yourself, or bought cooked from a supermarket or seafood store. When that’s done, you store the crab meat in the refrigerator until you’re ready to add it to the bisque.

Step two is to use those crab shells to flavour the thickened base for the bisque. That’s done by sautéing and then simmering the shells in a liquid flavoured with such things as vegetables, wine, tomato paste and seasonings.

Step three is to strain the mixture, return it to a simmer, add some whipping cream, season it with salt and pepper, then swirl in half the crab meat.

The last step is to put some of the remaining crab meat into each serving bowl, along with, if desired, a splash of brandy. Piping hot bisque gets poured in, you top it with a touch of sliced green onion or chopped parsley, and it’s ready to enjoy.

You can remove the crab meat from the shells and make the base for the bisque up to a day before serving the soup. See recipe details.

Start a festive winter dinner with bowls of the bisque. Or, make the bisque the main course of a lunch, served with too much sliced baguette, maybe a salad to start and some fine cheese to finish.

Dungeness Crab Bisque

This rich and splendid-tasting bisque is strewn with a nice amount of fresh Dungeness crab meat. You can make the base for the bisque up to a day before needed. See method for details.

Preparation time: 75 minutes

Cooking time: About 55 minutes

Makes: six servings

1 large (about 850 to 950 gram) whole, cooked Dungeness crab, cleaned (see Note and Eric’s options)

2 Tbsp butter

2 Tbsp olive oil

2 medium celery ribs, thinly sliced

1 large carrot, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced

2 medium shallots, halved and thinly sliced

3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup tomato paste

2 bay leaves

2 tsp dried tarragon

1/2 tsp smoked paprika

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

1 cup white wine

5 cups fish, seafood or chicken stock or broth, plus more if needed

2 cups water

1 cup whipping cream

• salt and white pepper, to taste

6 tsp brandy (divided; optional)

1 green onion, very thinly sliced, or 2 tsp chopped fresh parsley

Beginning with the smallest leg, holding the crab up where the body meat is, break/pull each leg off each half piece of crab. Now use kitchen scissors and seafood picks to cut open the legs and remove the meat from the legs and body portions of the crab. Set the crab meat in a bowl, cover and refrigerate until needed.

Break any large pieces of the crab shells into smaller pieces. Place butter and oil in a medium to large pot and set over medium heat.

When butter is melted, add the crab shells, carrot, celery, shallots and garlic and cook and stir five to six minutes. Mix in flour, tomato paste, bay leaf, tarragon, smoked paprika and cayenne and cook and stir two to three minutes more.

Slowly mix in the wine and cook until mixture is quite thick. Slowly mix in the stock (or broth). Bring bisque to a gentle simmer (small bubbles should just break on the surface). Adjust the heat as needed to maintain that gentle simmer. Simmer 30 minutes, or until bisque has a rich crab flavour.

Set a large, fine sieve over a second pot. Strain the crab shell mixture, in batches, if you have to, through the sieve, pushing on shells and vegetables that fall into the sieve with the back of a ladle to extract every drop of liquid you can. You should have at least six cups of bisque. If not, top up with more stock (or broth).

(You can make the bisque to this point up to a day before serving. Cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate it alongside the crab meat until you’re ready to reheat and finish as described below.)

Return bisque to a simmer. Mix the cream and half the crab meat into the bisque and heat them through a minute or two. Taste and season the bisque with salt and pepper.

To serve, put 1 tsp of brandy, if using, in each of six heated soup bowls. Divide and put some of remaining crab meat in each bowl. Ladle in the bisque, sprinkle with sliced green onion (or chopped parsley), and serve immediately.

Note: Cooked, whole Dungeness crabs are sold at some supermarkets and at seafood stores. Ask the clerk to clean the crab for you. When they do, they’ll remove the crab’s top shell and the innards, and you will end up with two half pieces of crab to use in this recipe. Also ask them for that top shell, as you can break it into smaller pieces and add it to the other shells used to flavour the base for the bisque.

Eric’s options: If you want to cook your own crab, ask the clerk at the store you’re buying it from to clean a whole live crab for you as described for the cooked crab in the Note above. Set the cleaned halved pieces of raw crab, and the top shell, if you have it, in a large bamboo or stainless steamer. Set over simmering water, cover and steam crab six to seven minutes, until cooked. Lift crab out of the steamer, set it on a plate, cool to room temperature, then extract the meat and use the shells as described in the recipe.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Times Colonist Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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