Finding unfussy, seasonal dishes, skilfully prepared by people who value the top quality fresh ingredients supplied by local producers is one of the great joys of travelling around Ireland. And never mind the devil, it’s the delight that’s in the detail in this delicious simple food…
My August Dish of the Month is the Fresh Crab Salad served at the FitzGibbon family’s Ahernes Seafood Bar & Restaurant, Youghal, Co Cork. And fresh is the operative word: straight from the sea and into the kitchen, straight out of the pot, hand picked and then straight onto the plate, it is served right away with still a hint of warmth in the flesh. You don’t get fresher than that, and what a USP. This simple dish was the best of many crab dishes enjoyed in Ireland this summer : they just serve it with their famous brown bread – magic.
Extracting recipes from chefs is notoriously difficult and the nearest to a ‘recipe’ that I was able to get from David FitzGibbon or his kitchen crew at Aherne’s ran as follows: “Steam the fresh crab for 15 minutes then leave to cool for another 5 minutes. Then crack the claws to loosen the crab meat and simply serve as is with your salad. Our French dressing recipe includes (for a small bottle): 2 tablespoons of mustard; 4 tablespoons of vinegar; 2 table spoons of caster sugar; 1 pint (600ml) of sunflower oil NB: season with salt and pepper and add the oil in last and nice and slowly. Any good mayonnaise would be nice with it.”
The detailed instructions below are from my book Good Food From Ireland, The Best of Irish Cookery (1991), where the advice came from the FitzGibbons’s friend and fellow Blue Book member, Aidan MacManus of the King Sitric Fish Restaurant in Howth, Co Dublin – who’s a dab hand with crab too.
Buying: Buy live crabs and cook as soon as possible. Larger crabs are less labour-intensive to dress; cock crabs have larger claws and therefore more white meat than hen crabs. Hen crabs, however, are a good buy from late August to October, when they are full of delicious red roe. Lift a crab before buying to see if it seems heavy for its size; light ones tend to be watery. As a rough guide, a 2 lb/900g crab usually yields about 12 oz/350g
Cooking: Plunge the crabs into a pot of boiling seawater or salted water. Bring the water back to the boil and simmer for about 10 minutes, then remove from the water and plunge into cold water to cool quickly.
Shelling: Tear off the claws. Separate the knuckles and, using a lobster pick or a small knife, scoop out the flesh. Gently crack the claws – one rap on each side will suffice – and pull off the shell to remove the meat. At restaurants like The King Sitric, they find the business of removing a small amount of flesh from the body unrewarding and use them for bisque instead. The amateur usually wants to get every available scrap of crabmeat, however, and the basic rule is that everything from the main shell is discarded except white meat and brown or pink creamy flesh – anything which is grey, greenish or just looks nasty should go.
To make a delicious Crabmeat Salad with Mayonnaise, allow about 4 oz/100g crabmeat per person for a starter, 6/7 oz/175/200g for a main course. (A 2 lb/900g crab will yield about 12 oz/325g meat, enough for a main course for two.)
Although restaurants like Aherne’s would make mayonnaise in the traditional way, this quick Blender Mayonnaise is ideal for home cooks. It produces a lighter texture and paler colour than the classic method, but it’s quick and easy to make and it’s much nicer than bought mayonnaise. Have all ingredients at room temperature before beginning.
1/2 pint/300 ml sunflower oil or half olive, half sunflower
4 yolks or 2 whole eggs
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder or l heaped teaspoon mild Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons cider or white wine vinegar, or lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Freshly ground pepper
Measure the oil into a jug. Put the eggs, mustard, l tablespoon of the vinegar and the salt into a blender or food processor. Cover and blend for a few seconds. Remove the centre cap from the lid and, with the motor running, slowly pour in the oil – the mayonnaise will begin to thicken when the blades are covered. When it is very thick, add the remaining vinegar, then continue to process until all the oil has been used. If it is too thick or too thin for your taste, adjust with a little more vinegar or oil. Check the seasoning, then spoon the mayonnaise into a screw-top jar and keep in the fridge until required.