Chatelaine Kitchen

Birthday soft shell crab and crème brûlee dinner

I have to admit birthdays have never been a big deal for me. I can take it or leave it when it comes to celebrating, but I do like the fact that turning another year older gives me a great opportunity to enjoy a fancy meal. This year I opted to skip eating out in favour of a stay-at-home soft shell crab dinner. Each spring, crabs drop their shell so they can grow larger. There’s a small window of time where their skin hardens but they haven’t yet formed a new shell. During this stage they can be cooked and eaten as is – that’s right, you savour every single bite of it, no cracking required. The season for soft-shell crabs is very short (and is finishing up very soon). They’re a bit of a hit-and-miss item at the market, depending on the weather. I called my local fish market (Bill’s Lobster) every day leading up to the night of the dinner but it looked like I wouldn’t be able to get my hands on any for my big day (cool weather had caused their price to sky rocket, so Bill’s didn’t want to buy any). But luck was on my side and the market managed to get an affordable shipment in on the day of my dinner. Check out the frying crabs: Here’s how we prepared them: I soaked 8 soft shell crabs in 2 cups (500 mL) of cold milk. I don’t have definitive reason for doing this, so I consulted my co-worker Lyn Chua and also read up on it online; all my sources say milk neutralizes the fishy smell. It also adds the moisture needed for dredging the crabs. (Dredging is coating an item with flour or bread crumbs before frying, which helps it get its golden colour). Then my sister Katrina fried them (I got out of cooking because it was my birthday, thanks sister!) in a good bit of melted butter and a little oil – the addition of oil prevents the butter from browning too quickly. They only took a few minutes aside. I served them with a few sauces but the crowd favourite was an Asian-style one. I stirred 1/3 cup (75 mL) soy sauce, 1/4 cup (50 mL) balsamic vinegar and 2 tbsp (30 mL) mirin. (Mirin is a Japanese rice wine similar to rice wine vinegar but much sweeter. If you don’t have any, don’t worry, it’s optional.) Then I stirred in some thinly sliced green onions and we were ready to start dipping. This sauce is also great over grilled fish. My Mom (Margaret) made a simple strawberry, almond and spinach salad – a lovely match for the sweet crab. Take a look at the dinner: Then the big finale ….dundadada. Katrina made crème brûlee. I studied to be a pastry chef – though I’m nowhere near as talented as my sister – but I don’t enjoy dessert very much. I just like the process of making it. So Katrina made one of my only favourites – a simple vanilla brûlee. It’s fun and a little crazy to use blow torch in your kitchen. Of course, I totally trust her (and kept my fire extinguisher near by). Here’s some fun pics: Here’s an easy crème brûlee trick for those of you who don’t have a blow torch on hand: evenly sprinkle the top of each crème brûlee with sugar. Broil in the oven just until the sugar begins to bubble. Keep in mind that the sugar will continue cooking for a minute or so, so take it out and let it do its thing. You can always put it back in if it’s not brown enough. Let your brûlees sit for a minute to harden. Then smash your spoon through the crystalized topper. That’s my favourite part of eating a crème brûlee – that crack, crack sound = a happy birthday.