fig. a: mysterious package
Doesn't look like much, I know, but that which you see in the picture above was the beginning of an extraordinary food week here at "...an endless banquet." The fact that we had a truly stellar meal at Laloux on Wednesday night certainly didn't hurt, but, however unlikely this may sound, it was our annual shipment of crab from Gaspé that wound up stealing the show, leading to not one, not two, but three great home-cooked meals. And all that from just one lousy 500 ml container.
We had a very good feeling just as soon as we opened our container.
fig. b: crabmeat from Gaspé
The crab was unbelievably fresh--just the color and the texture was enough to tell us so, but then that glorious smell of the sea came wafting into the air like a genie out of a bottle. We didn't even need to taste it to know how good it was, but we did anyway and we were happy we did. Delicious. The only "problem" was what to do with this treasure. Okay, so it wasn't much of a "problem"--a minor dilemma at best. Once again, we decided to divvy it up into two portions and make two different dishes with it--not because we were hedging our bets, though. We were just trying to stretch the crab out as much as possible, without stretching it so thin that it got lost in the process. We had no intention of "going Mexicali" (one recipe Mexican, the other Californian*) with the crab when we set out, but that's exactly what ended up happening. It didn't exert any kind of a direct influence on our dishes (as you see when you continue reading), but the phenomenal September 2007 issue of Gourmet on "Latino America," which turned up in our mailbox this week, definitely had an indirect influence on Dishes #2 and #3.
Dish #1 was actually pretty easy to settle on. We'd been out to Laloux the night before and we'd eaten and eaten well, so we were craving something light(ish). Something like a salad. Something like a crab salad. Something like a Crab Louie. Yes.
We consulted a number of Louie recipes, including one hailing from our beloved Swan Oyster Depot, where we enjoyed a fantastic Dungeness Crab Louie back in 2005, but, in the end, we decided to throw all caution into the wind and just wing it. So what if it wasn't the most authentic Louie of all time? We were pretty sure it was going to do justice to that Gaspé crab. This is what we did and here's how it turned out:
fig. c: AEB Crab Louie
Crab Louie à la AEB
1 cup (250 ml) crabmeat
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tbsp chipotle purée
1/8 cup sweet cucumber pickle (preferably homemade), finely chopped
1 tbsp capers
2-4 scallions, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 perfectly ripe avocado, sliced
1 perfectly ripe tomato, sliced
In a medium bowl, mix the crabmeat, mayonnaise, chipotle purée, pickle, capers, scallions until well blended. Add salt and pepper to taste. Arrange several leaves of Bibb lettuce in a shallow bowl. Serve one generous dollop of the crab salad in the middle and adorn with slices of avocado and tomato.
Serves 4 as a small side or 2 as a light meal.
And we were right. The combo worked perfectly. Louie aficionados might scoff, but this was easily the best crab salad we'd had since San Francisco.
Then, last night, we had to figure out what to do with the second half of our crab booty. The path we followed was a circuitous one. It started with the idea of making ceviche. I opened up a few cookbooks before finally turning to Diana Kennedy and The Essential Cuisines of Mexico. I went directly to the index and made my way to "Crabs." There I saw listings for "Blue, Stuffed" and "in a Chile and Tomato Broth" and they both sounded intriguing, but I was pretty sure neither of them was appropriate for this particular occasion. But then I noticed another peculiar listing just above: "Crabmeat, Shredded, and Vegetables, 16." Now that piqued my curiosity. It was such a dull description, so dreadfully boring, that I just had to look. When I flipped to page 16, I found the recipe for Salpicón de Jaiba and the following account:
When I first visited Tampico at the beginning of the seventies, I found what was to become one of my favorite regional restaurants at that time in the Hotel Inglaterra. The owner, Fidel Loredo, the brother of José Inés Loredo, the famous restaurateur whose restaurants in Mexico City are still renowned today [ca. 2000], gave me this simple but delicious recipe. It smacks of Chinese food and perhaps the influence came from the Chinese merchant ships frequenting the port of Tampico. [my emphasis]
"Chinese merchant ships"? I'd heard the theories about Japanese fishermen and fish tacos, but here was something entirely new to me. Frankly, I was already sold on the idea, but when I read further and saw Kennedy's note that, "[this] salpicón makes a delicious filling for small tacos," I was doubly sold. For some reason, though, I wasn't sure if Michelle would be. I was convinced the celery would break the deal. To my surprise, however, Michelle was enthusiastic. She loved the idea of a taco filling, and she promptly began to wax poetic about Diana Kennedy and how 100% rock-solid she and her cookbooks are. Until Michelle found out about the FIVE serrano chiles, that is. Suddenly her tune changed. She began to balk, saying something about not wanting to "overwhelm" the delicate flavor of the crab. I held my ground, though. "Don't you start doubting Diana," I told her. "Don't you ever start doubting Diana." She looked at me as if I was going to start singing "Candle in the Wind," but instead I pulled out the big guns. I simply reiterated the two magic words: "taco" and "filling." And that was all it took.
Half an hour later, after we'd assembled our usual battery of condiments and other fixings and I'd followed Kennedy's directions to a tee, right down to the last detail, we were seated before four of the most mouth-watering, soul-stirring, earth-shaking soft-shelled tacos we'd ever seen. Kennedy's salpicón was unbelievably simple and more than a little leftfield, but all the more tantalizing because of it. We'd tasted the salpicón on its own, of course, just to see if the flavor lived up to the fantastic aroma, and we weren't disappointed in the least. Now we were going to get a chance to taste the whole enchilada, as it were, with Bibb lettuce, slices of avocado, sour cream, freshly made salsa, chopped scallions, and a dash of Tapatio. We dug in and we both had the same reaction: we've had our fair share of tacos over the years, and we've traveled far and wide to have them, but these may very well have been the best ever. We're rather partial when it comes to crab, as I'm sure you've gathered, but for a shredded taco filling, really, this was just about as good as it gets. And the crab didn't get overwhelmed in the least. It was the crabmeat that was in charge, just as you'd want it. In fact, I'd venture to say the crabmeat was calling a tune and the onion, celery, chiles, and cilantro--all of them--were dancing.
What did they look like? Well, this was what Michelle's first taco looked like moments before she added the sour cream and the salsa. Again, doesn't look like much, but looks can be deceiving...
fig. d: crab taco
Salpicón de Jaiba (from Diana Kennedy's The Essential Cuisines of Mexico)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup finely chopped white onion
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
5 serrano chiles, finely chopped, with seeds
1 cup cooked, shredded crabmeat
3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
salt to taste
Heat the oil in a skillet and cook the onion gently until translucent.
Add the celery, chiles, and crabmeat and fry until they just begin to brown slightly. The mixture should be rather dry. Lastly add the cilantro and salt and cook for 1 minute more.
Serve with hot tortillas.
Makes enough to fill 8-10 corn tortillas.
It's hard to describe just how happy we were with this meal. Deep satisfaction, that's all I can say. But when we realized there was going to enough of that crab salpicón to make brunch the next day, we were nearly beside ourselves.
We quickly came up with the concept:
Crab Salpicón Breakfast Tacos
(I know you're with me on this one.)
And this is what it looked like:
fig. e: crab breakfast tacos
You probably can't tell from the photo above, but in our excitement, we kind of botched the poached eggs a little--they were just a bit overcooked. (The banquet may be "endless," but we never claimed it was faultless.) No matter, our latest crab creation was still pretty amazing. So amazing, in fact, that by the time we finished eating our crab breakfast tacos we were seeing things. Of course, this may have had something to do with the fact that we watched Plein Soleil last night after our initial crab taco feast, but all of a sudden the Tapatío guy, the guy whose grinning face graces the front of each and every bottle of Tapatío,
fig. f: Alain Delon as Tapatío?
was looking a lot like Alain Delon ca. Le Circle Rouge (if you wiped away the grin, naturally, and replaced it with a French cigarette).
* The Californian recipe is the Crab Louie, obviously. The origins of this classic are heavily debated in certain circles, but no one would dispute that San Francisco is the dish's principal home at this point and has been for the better part of the last century, if not longer.