“Indeed, stock is everything in cooking... Without it, nothing can be done.“
Auguste Escoffier (1903)
This dish is inspired by a recipe from "Tom Kitchin's Fish & Shellfish". I first knew of Tom Kitchin when he appeared on the BBC TV series "Great British Menu". After watching him in that and in subsequent TV cookery shows, it was clear to me that, if ever there were a chef who championed seasonal and local produce, it was him.
It really doesn't take much digging around to find a multitude of recipes for bisque, oftentimes lobster, but very much crab as well. But, ever keen to source recipes and ideas for less-popular native seafood varieties, of which spider crab is unquestionably one, the reason this particular bisque recipe caught my attention was Kitchin's application of the dish to what he calls green crab which are also called shore crab. Delving a little deeper he suggests that his recipe is also a treatment for velvet crab which is a swimming crab also native to British waters. Both of these are species that largely go under the culinary radar as they are only really at their best used in soup, but I was inspired to put the idea to use for spider crab which really shine through when souped-up.
Spider crabs have a well-understood minus but also a well-understood and bigger plus. They are somewhat harder to pick through to get to their meat than the popular brown crab but what meat is obtained is as good as crab meat ever gets. Unfortunately the picking effort plays a large part in putting people off these crabs. However, cooked spider crabs are currently on sale in the farmers' market at £4-5/kg (one-third to half the price of their brown crab cousins) which, when compared with their price in a mid-range restaurant in Spain, where they are extremely popular and to where so many of our native crabs typically end up, at €35/kg (when last I checked, see Arroz Meloso de Centollo), the polarity in appreciation for these critters in and out of the UK speaks for itself.
Large cock spider crabs have an appreciable claw which makes for easy pickings. Hens, by contrast, tend to be smaller and have little claw to speak of but contain comparatively more intensely-flavoured brown meat. So, to minimise the picking, I was drawn to focus on a soup or bisque for which the only harvesting was for the white meat from the claws of a cock crab with the remainder of the beast used in the creation of a soup.
After trying out my idea a few times, I came across a recipe by Mark Hix (a chef I admire greatly) in a book called "The Soup Kitchen", a compendium of soup recipes by numerous esteemed chefs, edited by Annabel Buckingham and Thomasina Miers, and introduced by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. His method was largely the same, using a brown crab, to create what he called his "Cornish Crab Soup". This resonated of a recent effort by the Cornish fishing industry to increase the popularity of two native fish species hugely overlooked by the British diner: megrim sole, renamed to "Cornish sole", and spider crab, renamed to "Cornish King Crab". So, generally sourcing my spider crabs from Dorset waters as I do, I find myself now somehow seeing Hix's "Cornish Crab Soup" and raising him my "Dorset Cornish King Crab Soup"!?!. All efforts to raise the appeal of our native seafood can surely only be applauded but in this case have we maybe encountered some perplexing nomenclature to navigate. Isn't "Spider Crab Bisque" fine?
There are a number of things I like about this bisque recipe. One is in the use of tinned tomatoes as I'm always keen to see tinned or preserved ingredients used when out of season - that was the original point of doing it after all. Another, the combination of herbs and spices - cardamom, tarragon, fennel seeds and saffron - is inspired. In fact I have never had to add any seasoning when making this recipe.
The "Crabaïoli" croûtes are, by all means, optional. You would be more than forgiven for just eating the white crab meat as it is and serving the bisque just with croûtes and Aïoli or a simple garlic mayonnaise. But a bit of garlic here is a winner!
Basically in this recipe we use the white meat from the claws and the rest of the crab is used to make the soup, so picking is kept to a minimum. A 1-1.2kg cock crab is ideal (for 2-3 servings) because of the larger claws relative to the hen (which have practically no claws to speak of). However, hen crabs have a richer flavour and I have made this bisque very pleasingly with two 500g hens, but it did require a bit of picking from the larger leg sections to obtain enough white meat to accompany the soup. Perhaps the perfect answer is to use a 'brace' of spider crabs: one cock, one hen.
The bisque itself is essentially Kitchin's recipe but is adapted to cater for the larger physical size of the spider crab compared to the green/shore or velvet species. For this I have used more stock and water than the original recipe and reduced it at the end to drive off the extra water required to simmer the crabs. And because of that I prefer to add the cream at the end (which would seem perfectly acceptable as it is the method prescribed in "Larousse Gastronomique") rather than the beginning as I am always reluctant to boil cream. However this has the advantage that the base of the soup can be made ahead and/or in large quantities and it can be frozen as such. Finishing the dish off just requires reheating and the addition of the cream. On that point, Kitchin's recipe uses a lot of cream - too much for my taste - so the smaller quantity I suggest can be increased if preferred.
To allay any fears: nothing in a crab is poisonous. It's just that there are parts of a crab that deteriorate quickly so removing them (recipe step 3) helps to ensure the soup will taste the very best and freshest it can. The "dead man's fingers", the gills of the crab (illustrated while very fresh), are the main such part.
You can use fish stock for this recipe but a shellfish stock will enrich the colour and flavour of the soup. Shellfish stock is now available in some supermarkets.
The "Crabaïoli" is nothing more than than the white crab meat folded into an Aïoli, for which I based the recipe on one of Michel Roux's in his sauce bible "Sauces: Savoury & Sweet". The cooked egg yolk helps increase the body of the sauce but doesn't appear in all recipes for Aïoli. The quantities given make quite a lot more sauce than you need for the "Crabaïoli" croûtes but extra can be served alongside or kept in an airtight jar in the fridge for a few days.
The list of ingredients may appear lengthy but many of the ingredients go in the pot together in just a few steps so, as a recipe, it's far easier than it might first look. If you were to opt for the 'brace' of crabs and had a total weight of about 1.5kg you need only pick the meat from the claws of the cock. Apart from a little more stock and water (to just cover the crab shells) no other ingredients need to be increased and this will serve 4 comfortably.
Spider Crab Bisque with "Crabaïoli" Croûtes
Ingredients (makes 2-3 servings)
1-1.2kg cooked spider crab (see recipe intro)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 shallot (40g), chopped
¼ fennel head, trimmed and thinly sliced
6 green cardamom pods
½ tsp fennel seeds
½ tsp chopped tarragon
2 tsp tomato purée
Pinch of saffron strands
40ml dry white wine
1 tbsp brandy (optional, but recommended)
Juice of ½ orange including its pulp
100g tinned tomatoes
300-600ml fish stock (or any shellfish stock), made up to approx. 1 litre with water
100-200ml double cream, according to taste, plus a little extra to drizzle
Salt and freshly ground black pepper (or cayenne pepper)
Chopped soft herbs to garnish: tarragon, chervil, parsley or chives (optional)
For the Crabaïoli croûtes:
Picked white spider crab meat (see recipe intro and step 1)
A few tbsp Aïoli (see notes)
Croûtes (see notes)
Make the Aïoli and croûtes ahead of time (see notes), even a day or two before.
Detach the claws from the crab and pick the meat from inside (see recipe intro). Put the cracked claw shells to one side. Detach the legs from the crab, give them a bash and put with the claw shells.
Prise apart the body of the crab from its top shell. Pull away the "dead man's fingers" (the feathery grey gills of the crab shown in the image above) and discard along with the mouth and anything else that looks "hairy". Cut the body into quarters with a long knife (this is surprisingly easy to do) and add these to the collection of shells. Finally bash the top shell into a few pieces to to complete the collection.
In a large saucepan, heat the oil to medium hot then add the carrots and sauté them for 2 mins. Add the garlic, shallot, fennel, cardamom pods, fennel seeds and tarragon and sauté for another 2 mins then add the tomato purée and saffron and cook for a further 1 min. Put the crab shells in the pot along with any juices that may have come from them and mix well.
Add the white wine, brandy, orange juice and pulp, increase the heat and bring to the boil for long enough that the liquid has largely evaporated. Add the tomatoes and diluted fish stock (the liquid should just cover the crab shells but if not top up with a bit more water), bring back to the boil and then lower the heat to allow the soup to simmer gently for 30 mins, uncovered, skimming any scum from the surface occasionally as necessary.
Ladle the contents of the saucepan in several batches into a sieve set over a bowl and discard what is caught in the sieve. At this point you should have about 1 litre of soup which should now be brought to the boil in a clean saucepan until reduced down to 500-650ml (i.e. reduce by roughly a third or to a half for a more intensely flavoured soup). Stir in the cream, bring to a gentle boil then reduce the heat and allow the soup to simmer gently for a further 5-10 minutes.
While the soup is reducing, prepare the "Crabaïoli" croûtes (see notes). Gently fold each 1 tbsp white crab meat into 1 tsp Aïoli. Spread onto the croûtes and set aside.
Check and adjust the bisque for seasoning then serve in soup bowls garnished with a drizzle of cream and the chopped soft herbs (optional), with the "Crabaïoli" croûtes served alongside.
Aïoili: In the container of an electric blender put 1 hard-boiled egg yolk, 1 raw egg yolk and 1 crushed garlic clove and whizz together. Gradually add approx. 100ml olive oil blending continuously to create a thick mayonnaise-type consistency. Add a pinch of saffron strands that have been steeped in 1-2 tsp water and blend again. Add a seasoning of salt, cayenne pepper and the juice of ¼-½ lemon and leave in the fridge for the flavour to develop. It is best made a day or two ahead of the time it is to be used and brought to room temperature before using.
Easy Aïoli (or Easïoli?): Mix together a ready-made (ideally homemade) mayonnaise with a crushed clove of garlic, a pinch of saffron strands and season with salt, cayenne pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. Leave in the fridge as above.
Croûtes: Cut a baguette on the diagonal into 1cm slices. Lightly drizzle with olive oil, place on a baking sheet, and put in an oven preheated to 180°C for about 10 mins, turning occasionally, until crisp and golden. These croûtes will keep for a couple of days in an air-tight container and can be reheated in a warm oven if preferred.
"Tom Kitchin's Fish & Shellfish", Tom Kitchin (2018), pp. 48: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tom-Kitchins-Fish-Shellfish-Kitchin/dp/147293783X
"The Soup Kitchen", various contributors (2005), pp. 121: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Soup-Kitchen-Hugh-Fearnley-Whittingstall/dp/0007205406
"Larousse Gastronomique", Joël Robuchon et. al. (2001), pp. 115: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Larousse-Gastronomique-Hamlyn/dp/0600620425
"Sauces: Savoury & Sweet", Michel Roux (2009), pp. 87: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sauces-Savoury-Sweet-Michel-Roux/dp/1787134741
"Arroz Meloso de Centollo", Bute Street Seafoodie