Re-Creating Aunt Kathy's Maryland Crab Soup
This isn't a cooking blog, or even a food blog. But it is a place where I like to keep things that are important or that I want to share, and this recipe is both of those things.
Every summer growing up, my family took a week-long vacation to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware where one of the highlights, since I can remember, has been my Aunt Kathy's Maryland crab soup. Among our many other family traditions of happy hour at the beach, boardwalk games, ice cream cones, and bike rides, no beach week was complete without one night's dinner being a good ol'-fashioned crab feast, hon. We'd all sit around with corn on the cob, cold beers, and lots of paper towels to engage in Maryland's most famous tradition of crab picking and claw cracking, knowing that while the crabs were certainly fun and delicious, the crab soup that came the day after was the real reward.
After we'd all had our fill and dispersed to find fun elsewhere, my dedicated Aunt Kathy would sit and continue to pick crab after crab, saving the back shells and half the claws for her incredible soup, which we all anticipated like a brand new bike on Christmas. In fact this soup is so valuable, one year my brother requested it as his birthday gift. Another time in Rehoboth, the leftover soup was being stored in the fridge in a pitcher (the only vessel large enough to hold it all) and my dad knocked it on the floor, spilling it in its entirety. It was like watching a family photo album catch on fire; so precious, so irreplacable. It was a tragic loss and we're all still pissed.
Living in New York City, a good steamed crab is hard to come by. In fact, I haven't even tried, because I'm so afraid of being disappointed, and so I'd given up on the idea that I'd get to eat this delicious soup anytime other than "beach week." But seeing as Independence Day was a Wednesday this year, I'd need to do something to distract myself from the banality of the surrounding work days and make it feel special. Thus, the perfect excuse to finally hunt down a spot where I could try and get authentic MD crabs steamed and seasoned with Old Bay, as no other spice will do. Amazingly, there is a spot way out in Brooklyn near the water, called Clemente's Maryland Crab House, so on July 4th we drove out, picked up 3 dozen steamed crabs with corn, mallets, and paper, and enjoyed them with friends who were almost as excited as I was.
The day after, I pulled the dozen or so leftovers out of the fridge and got down to the dirty work of extracting the meat from the now cold crabs while watching a crappy documentary about murderers and urban legends. Three hours later, I had an enviable bowl full of backfin lump crab meat, a pretty sore back, and a newfound sense of pride and hope that hey, maybe I was gonna make this soup myself, and maybe it was gonna be damn good!
The next day I hit Key Food to get all my necessary ingredients. While shopping, I found that your typical grocery store tomato soup (which is in Aunt Kathy's recipe) has a lot of not-so-good stuff in it, like added sugar, dairy, or even high fructose corn syrup. Seeing as we're trying to cut that stuff out, I decided to improvise and instead use a mixture of beef stock, seafood stock, and plain tomato sauce. So technically, this is my riff on Aunt Kathy's OG crab soup, but it turned out pretty delicious, and I think quite similar!
12-14 Old Bay steamed crabs
8 slices of bacon
2 bay leaves
3-4 celery stalks, cut into thirds
1/2 onion, diced
1 small can of tomato paste
1.5 c seafood stock
1.5 c beef stock
1/2 c water
1 regular can fire roasted chopped tomatoes
1 regular can of tomato sauce (plain, unseasoned)
Old Bay to taste
Pick the backfin meat out of all the crabs, and the claw meat out of about 8 or so claws. Save the back shells of the crabs, and any remaining uncracked claws (you'll use these for the base/stock).
Put the back shells and remainder claws (with all spices! Don't wash them!) into a big pot with just enough water to cover them, and boil gently. Add 8 or so slices of bacon, 3-4 celery stalks (cut into thirds), 1/2 an onion diced into small pieces, and a small can of tomato paste. Add a bay leaf or two if you have. Simmer for 20-30 minutes. Remove and discard bacon and celery and bay leaves.
Peel and cut into bite-size pieces 3-4 potatoes and 3-4 carrots. Put in the pot along with the seafood and beef broths, the can of tomato sauce, and 1/2 c water. Simmer for about 20 min., then add a bag of mixed frozen vegetables. I used a mix of peas, carrots, corn, green beans and lima beans, but this is open to personal preference.
After about 5-10 minutes, add the can of diced tomatoes (or cut up whole canned tomatoes). I prefer the fire-roasted ones for added flavor. Add the crab meat (about 1 lb.). Stir gently. Let simmer until everything is heated.
Depending on how well-seasoned your crabs were from the start, you may not need to add any additional Old Bay, salt or pepper! Take a taste and be the judge. Leave the claws in the soup, including when you serve it, for ambiance.
So there you have it, the most Maryland-y recipe there ever was for the most delicious soup there ever was, and it's not even hard to make. This soup for me is about family, and home, and summer. It pairs perfectly with a couple oyster crackers and a cold beer -- try a classic Baltimore brew like Natty Boh, or if you're feelin' fancy and wanna double down on spice, a Dead Rise brewed with Old Bay from Flying Dog.
Now I'd like to take this opportunity to circle back and thank Aunt Kathy (who I just call "Kathy" now, because I'm an adult) for her recipe (and willingness to share it!) and for being the generous chef she is to us, at the beach and in life overall. Her food is amazing and it brings us together -- every family event has an unspoken, unwritten menu that I always look forward to, from pea soup to glazed ham to spicy sausage pasta, that brings me right back to my childhood, my family, my home. Thank you, Kathy, your cooking is home.