Blue Crab Sauce
By C.G. Wolfe
Photos by Susan Pedersen
with other images Courtesy of
Metropolitan Seafood & Gourmet
The market at Metropolitan Seafood was closed, as it always is on Monday, when we slipped through the front door on a recent drizzly mid-morning, and locked it behind us. The wire bakery racks, normally stacked with fresh bread, were barren and there wasn’t a hint of fish in the air, just the nutty aroma of freshly brewed coffee. The only light came from the kitchen, where the tenor lament of Luciano Pavarotti, channeling Leoncavallo's cuckolded clown, Canio, played on a low volume but still drowned out the sound of a simmering pot of salted water steaming on the flame of a gas-lit burner.
Metro’s owner and renowned fishmonger, Mark Drabich, already aproned and rocking a fashionable, hunter green scarf, greeted us with a tray heaped with iced Maryland Blue, and Maine Rock Crabs that brought a tear to my eye – Pagliacci and Atlantic crustaceans always make me cry.
We had come to recreate my Granny’s Blue Crab Sauce, or as Mark described it, “perform a culinary séance.” The dish was Granny’s spaghetti course for the Feast of the Seven Fishes, an Italian-American Christmas Eve celebration rooted in the Roman Catholic custom of abstaining from meat on the eve of certain holidays, including Christmas.
My grandmother was born in Italy and my grandfather was a first-generation American, born four years after his father, Ponziano Ranciato, arrived at Ellis Island, from the Abruzzo region. They were both members of families that arrived with the large wave of Italian immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century. They settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where the population swelled with newly arrived Italians who, by 1930, had become the dominant ethnic group in the city.
New Jersey native, Mark Drabich, describes his heritage as “proudly half Lebanese and half Slovak” but he is no stranger to the gut-busting Christmas Eve feast, which is celebrated every year at his house and features double the obligatory seven seafood dishes.
“My lovely bride for over 30 years is 100% Italian with most of her heritage hailing from the island of Sicily,” he said. “We probably have at least 14 ‘fishes’ represented.”
“I have two and don’t make me choose,” he said. “Roasted baccalà (dried salted cod) with tomatoes and black olives and Pasta con le Sarde (a pasta dish with fresh sardines and fennel).”
A knock out in her youth, I always remember Granny as short and pleasantly plump, with arms as thick as an offensive lineman, and Christmas Eve was one of the rare occasions that I saw her clad in something other than a spotless house dress.
“As a young buck there was a certain sexual allure to a house dress on the right woman,” Mark commented. (I include that digression to entertain any Freudians in the audience.)
I also very rarely saw my grandmother outside the savory milieu of her kitchen, where, as a kid of seven or eight years old, I sat and watched her make homemade pasta or roll meatballs for the Sunday gravy. Of course, I was allowed to sample at will, and my older brother Richie, who was tasked by my mother to make sure I didn’t eat my way into oblivion, always met stiff resistance from Granny.
“Shut up and let the kid enjoy himself,” she replied to his surrogate-motherly nagging.
Granny spent weeks preparing for Christmas Eve and it must have cost my grandfather a small fortune, but he reveled in being the founder of the feast. Pop was a man of few words who introduced me to the nuances of the artichoke (“they choked Artie but they won’t choke us”) and how to pick wild morels in the spring. His given name was Achilles but he went by Kelly and never went anywhere without his trademark fedora-style “Kelly” hat. He grew his own vegetables and loved Italian food but had a particular American affinity for steak and fries, which my grandmother cooked for him every Saturday night. It was his favorite meal and sadly his last. The night he had a fatal heart attack and was being wheeled out of the house on a gurney, he stopped the EMTs before they got him out the door.
“Carmel, he called to my grandmother, “get me my hat!”
At the hospital, later that night, my father had the unenviable job of telling Granny that Pop had passed.
“Well,” she said, “at least he had a good meal.”
For Granny, a good meal was the ultimate expression of love and I still think hugs and kisses whenever I smell a pan of frying meatballs. Breaking bread together as a family (and dipping it in the Sunday gravy) was part of the glue that kept us together. Everything at Granny’s house centered on food and Christmas Eve was no exception. Folding tables were brought out and strung together, and the best plates and silverware, along with frosted grapevine patterned tumblers and jugs of red table wine, were carefully set out on her finest linen. Pop added the final embellishment to the table setting, placing a newly-minted silver dollar on each plate.
The aroma of slow simmering sauce mingled with the perfumes of fried, roasted, and marinated fish melded with olive oil and herbs, permeated the entire house, as family and friends arrived to the backdrop of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin crooning carols, and Lou Monte belting out the story of Dominick, Santa’s Italian Donkey.
“Hey, chingedy ching, hee haw, hee haw. It's Dominick, the donkey. Chingedy ching, hee haw, hee haw. The Italian Christmas donkey.”
Rosy cheeks were kissed and pinched, garishly wrapped presents were placed under the shimmering, silver tinsel tree, and bubbly glasses of dry Prosecco, and red-hued bitter Campari with sparkling water were eagerly consumed to get the digestive juices flowing.
After everyone was seated, the wine was poured, and the toast was made, the piscatorial courses arrived one after the other and were passed around the table – eel, scungilli, shrimp cocktail, stuffed clams, calamari, baccalà, and even lobster tails. But the dish I waited for all year was Granny’s spaghetti and crab sauce – a sweet red sauce made with lump crab meat and whole Atlantic Blue Crabs, a crustaceous staple on Long Island Sound that my friends and I often caught during summer low tides with bunker-baited drop lines and scoop nets.
We began our quest for the ghosts of Christmas Eves past, by selecting a pasta. (When I was a kid, we never used the term pasta. There was spaghetti, and everything else was macaroni.) Metro has over 100 authentic Italian pastas to choose from. I generally use an Italian brand at home, but we learned that all pasta that’s marked “made in Italy” isn’t the same.
“This pasta is made from Italian grain,” Mark pointed out, choosing a rough-textured, semolina-hued spaghetti for our dish.
“Most mass-produced pastas say ‘made in Italy’ but the grain comes from North America. This grain (hard durum-wheat flour, called semola di grano duro in Italian, and semolina in English) actually comes from Italy.”
Italian pasta is also extruded through bronze dies instead of industrial Teflon. This gives the pasta that rough texture that sauce can cling to. Anyone who has had a bowl of slippery spaghetti that tries to swim away from the sauce knows what I’m talking about.
“You see how dull that is? That’s because they use bronze fittings. That dull finish will drink in our sauce better,” Mark assured us.
Our simple “mise en place,” which Mark explained is a French term for preparing and organizing all of your ingredients before you start cooking, began with 12 cloves of chopped garlic; 4 cans of whole San Marzano tomatoes pulsed in the food processor (crushed but not pureed – you want a few chunks); a bunch of fresh flat leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped; and of course, our crabs – about a dozen whole, as well as lump crab meat – about a pound or two cans if you can’t find it fresh (Metro has a variety of fresh crab meat.)
Mark had the crabs cleaned before we got there and decided we should use a combination of Maryland Blue Crab and Maine Rock Crabs.
“Generally, when she made that sauce in the winter time, she probably had frozen (blue) crab,” said Mark, “which we actually freeze for our clients, so we have them (blue crab is not available after September). We’re going to use fresh crab meat today. You could use any crab. You could use rock crab which is available now until December… Dungeness crab. But if you try a King Crab or Stone Crab legs, you’re just not going to get that bone broth. It’s the bone broth that is going to make it.”
The pot was already cranked to low/medium heat when we got to the stove.
“We’re gonna give it a little Lebanese twist and use Lebanese olive oil - we’re in Lebanon, NJ,” Mark quipped as he added a generous pour (at least a 1/2 cup). “This is the most inexpensive, high-quality olive oil that you can buy.”
Next we added our garlic and sautéed it until it was just translucent but don’t toast it or burn it!
“If it burns, it makes everything taste like an everything-bagel,” Mark warned.
We added around a ½ cup of red wine, which many recipes leave out, but Granny always added wine to hers, and besides, it was 10:30 a.m. and we had already opened the bottle and poured a few glasses, so why not? And nothing smells better than red wine and sautéing garlic.
The crabs sizzled and steamed as they were gently dropped into their bubbling wine bath. You want to simmer them slowly with the lid partially on – the blue crabs will actually turn red as they cook.
“Now, we’ll let it get that bone broth from the crab, which you’re not going to get anywhere else,” Mark crooned.
After about 10 minutes, we added the tomatoes and some paste, a can or a good long squeeze from the tube will do. Mark also added chef salt, a combination of kosher salt and pepper.
“One thing you should never do after adding salt is taste it immediately,” Mark advised. “The salt needs to dissolve and come through. I adore salt,” he admitted, adding another pinch.
At this point, you could also add a little (or a lot) of red pepper flakes, but Granny left it out for the kids’ sakes, and put a shaker on the table instead.
We left the lid to the pot ajar and let the sauce simmer for about a half an hour. Ten minutes or so before it was done, we added the crab meat, a pinch of sugar (optional), and lastly, the flat leaf parsley.
“When you have fresh herbs, you kind of want to add them at the end. You want that herbaceous quality. You want that ‘timbali’ as opposed to the base note, he said, impressing us with his musical analogy. “I stole that from somebody, I am sure,” he said.
At this stage, Mark recommends a little Italian fish sauce or “Colatura di Alici” – described as Italy’s answer to umami. Some recipes add chopped anchovies to the oil and garlic, instead, but we left out both this time (but may give it a try with the next one).
We cooked the spaghetti just short of al dente and then finished it in the sauce. Nostrils flaring, I could already tell from the tomatoey, salty, herby, sweet fragrance that Mark had nailed it! I dipped a spoon in the pot and without bothering to let it cool, took a long, eager slurp. I was immediately washed over by what’s now called “food nostalgia,” the flood of emotions and warm fuzzies that can be triggered by certain comfort foods. At home, I have a small, framed photo portrait of my grandmother above the stove to watch over me while I cook, but I couldn’t help feeling that she was in the kitchen with us that morning at Metro too – Mark’s “culinary séance” was complete.
An intimate lunch table was set in the closed market, and we sat down to heaping plates of spaghetti and crab sauce, topped with the whole crabs, for those who couldn’t resist sucking the tender morsels from the claws and legs. Memories are made by the vivid experience of all five senses, and mine were on overload as I sat down to share my Granny’s Blue Crab Sauce with my beautiful wife, our wonderful friend and photographer, Susan, and our affable, ever-generous host and larger-than-life fishmonger. Mark Drabich. Another glass of wine was poured and the tumblers were hoisted in celebration.
Here’s to you Granny – ala famiglia!