Arroz Meloso de Centollo
Updated: Aug 23, 2020
"Un arroz «meloso» tiene un punto especial entre caldoso y seco, porque el caldo queda trabado, con una densidad como la miel, entre sólido y fluido, ..."
Lourdes March (1985)
The horse may have bolted on this one for this year as far as seasonality is concerned, but this dish has been in my oven for such a long time I had to serve it up, even if it has to wait until next year to be eaten. It's a dish of spider crab, a species which would normally stop being available on the stall around about now.
But season notwithstanding, the reality is that spider crab just isn't particularly popular in the UK and most of what we catch goes to markets abroad. By extreme contrast these crabs, going as they do by the name of centollo, are prized in Spain. To put things in perspective, this particular recipe serves two (plausibly, four) for under £5 (if the crab is bought live, add £2 if cooked) with enough stock left over for another soupy meal for two. My trusty Spanish co-seafoodies (thank you Menu & Carta for your help with my research) assure me that a mid-priced restaurant over there would happily receive €45-50 for the same dish for two from their grateful customers. Served unadulterated these crabs would readily fetch €35/kg in the same restaurant.
I'm pretty confident that, in the UK, one of the reasons why spider crabs are so much less popular than their very popular brown crab cousins is the relative scarcity of meat within, not least because they are far less well-endowed on the claw front. However, "crustacearachnophiles" will all agree that what meat you do harvest is far richer and more complex in flavour, just as much (if not more so) in the brown meat as in the white. But the thing is, as with so many shellfish, there is a an enormous wealth of flavour in the shells and, if it makes sense to bisque up a lobster carcass, surely it makes sense to soup-up your spiders? Well it certainly does and, in fact, it arguably makes more than sense - spider crab stock is abundant in flavour and bang-for-buck infinitely more rewarding than that from lobster.
For this reason, when trying to think of dishes that truly exposed the full potential of an incredibly affordable seafood I was steadfast in targeting my focus on those that harnessed both the meat of the crab and the stock from its shells. And although the dish I chose here does exactly that, I chose it some time ago and it has taken me far too long to get on and make it.
It's one of the many types of rice dish that come from Spain, and yes, by that I am asserting that there are more types of rice dish than paella. Indeed, the title of my go-to authoritative text on this subject, written by Lourdes March, translates to "The Book of the Paella and the Rices (Dishes)". As I'm sure many know, the national Spanish dish is based on rice and is cooked over wood flames in a pan called a paella. It is a dry preparation, one of several known collectively in Spanish as "arroces secos", or "dry rice dishes", of which another example is one of my favourite of them all, "Arroz al horno", or "rice cooked in the oven" (my Spanish "tia" makes a superb Arroz al horno).
Among the other typical rice dishes are those characterised by a higher liquid-to-rice ratio. There is "arroz caldoso", which is a "soupy rice" or "brothy rice" (caldo being the Spanish for "stock" or "broth") and is similar in consistency to the sort of soupy noodle dishes so familiar in Chinese cuisine, for example. And there is something texturally in between and what I have chosen here, an "arroz meloso" which, translated literally, means "honeyed rice", a translation eloquently elaborated upon by Lourdes March in the quote at the top of this post. This says "An 'arroz meloso' has a particular place between soupy and dry, because the stock becomes thickened, with a consistency like honey, between solid and fluid."
In this particular recipe the stock is made through an extremely simple formula containing, of course, the shells from the crab, but given an enormous flavour boost from its brown meat. Then some of the white meat goes into the body of the dish with the precious majority left largely untouched atop. I have never been served an arroz meloso de centollo in exactly this form, but I believe it shows utmost respect to the spider crab and have no doubt whatsoever that every Spaniard would approve. After all, who complains when one of their cherished dishes is offered at 10% of its usual price?
I would love to eat something like this with a side salad but trust me, an attempt to order a salad to go with your rice course is, in a Spanish restaurant, doomed to failure. Salad, for the Spanish, is a starter, and a hefty one at that. The most the Spanish would serve a dish like this with is bread. Oh, and ¡vino!
There isn't a recipe specifically for an arroz meloso with spider crab in Lourdes March's book. However, the book is written almost like a manual with very formulaic and prescriptive chapters on the techniques demanded by the various traditional rice dishes. This I find both refreshing and incredibly useful since it allows the reader to go about their own creativity with a sense of confidence that their approach is supported by solid foundations.
What I have done therefore is to use the recipe for the stock for her paella of spider crab and followed her general guidelines for the preparation of an arroz meloso. It is enchanting that the stock is so simple in constitution with just a little green pepper as what is commonly called the "stock veg". However, many, if not all, of the recipes for seafood in the book cook the seafood for far too long for my taste. I have therefore chosen to introduce the white crab meat only at the very end of this recipe so that it is afforded the retention of its texture and flavour as much as I feel it deserves. This recipe could be made with the more common brown crab and also lobster, with treatment exactly the same.
In terms of servings, a 1-1¼ kg crab with 1.5-2.0 litres of water will make a stock that could be used for a meal for four if the quantity of rice is doubled - more white crab meat may be desirable but it certainly does not need to be doubled. Otherwise this recipe is designed for two servings with sufficient stock left over to make a second dish for two. For example, the residual stock could be used to cook another arroz meloso, or a paella, with mussels added for the second half of the cooking time to create an arroz de mariscos.
In terms of timings, the recipe gives guidance for my favourite brand of rice "La Fallera". Other brands and types may well require a slightly different (probably longer) cooking time. For this reason it is important to check the rice, as directed, after an initial cooking time of 12 minutes as it will definitely not be overcooked by then. And remember, Lourdes March insists that "the rice MUST NOT BE WASHED."
Arroz Meloso de Centollo
Ingredients (Serves 2)
For the crab and the "caldo de centollo":
1kg cooked spider crab
2 tbsp virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
100g green pepper, finely chopped (optional)
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tomatoes, one coarsely chopped, the other very finely chopped
2 parsley sprigs
½ tsp paprika
¼ tsp salt, plus extra for seasoning
1.5 litres water
For the arroz meloso:
2 tsp virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 tomato, deseeded and very finely chopped
A pinch of paprika
500ml "caldo de centollo" (plus a little extra in case required)
110g paella rice, bomba, calasparra or La Fallera
A pinch of saffron
The white meat from the spider crab
Prepare the crab. Remove the claws and the legs from the body and extract the meat from the claws, the top section of the legs and the small cavities in the body from where the legs were attached. Open the body of the crab, scrape out what white meat is easily available and, into a separate bowl spoon out the brown crab meat. A 1kg crab should give approximately 90g of white meat and an equivalent weight of brown meat. Remove the "dead man's fingers" and chop the softer part of the body into quarters and, if you want to, smash the top shell and all the other shells with a rolling pin or meat hammer.
For the "caldo de centollo", heat the olive oil for the stock in a stock pot. Fry the onion and green pepper, if using, until the onion becomes translucent, then add the garlic for about 30 seconds. Next add the tomato and the parsley followed by the brown crab meat and paprika. Stir for a minute or so then pour in the water and the ¼ tsp salt. Add the crab shells, bring to the boil, and simmer, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes. After this time, pass the contents of the pan through a fine sieve and keep the "caldo de centollo" aside or allow to cool and refrigerate if the rest of the dish is to be completed later.
In a shallow casserole or deep-sided sauté pan put the 2 tsp olive oil and the chopped garlic. Turn on the heat to medium and when the garlic has sweated for about 30 seconds add the chopped tomato. Allow to cook gently for a minute or two, stirring regularly, add the pinch of paprika, give it a quick stir then pour in the "caldo de centollo" and crumble in the pinch of saffron. Bring to the boil.
When the liquid is boiling, taste and adjust for salt, then distribute the rice around the pan. Bring the liquid to the boil again, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for 12 minutes, but do not stir. At this point check how well cooked the rice is - it should need about 3-6 minutes more to remain al dente but with the liquid having reduced substantially, to "the consistency of honey", no less!
With about a minute to go turn off the heat and gently incorporate half or less of the white crab meat. Leave to rest for a further 1-2 minutes then serve with the remaining white crab meat distributed in or over the rice, or piled on top, either in the pan it has been cooked in or on individual plates.
"El libro de la paella y de los arroces", Lourdes March (6th edition 2005, first published 1985), pp. 34-5, 114, 120: https://www.amazon.co.uk/El-libro-paella-los-arroces/dp/8491047549