Blue crabs are serious business in Virginia. I spent my high school years in Spotsylvania County, which is not on the Chesapeake, but is close enough to boast a few crab shacks and quite a few roadside vendors who do a brisk business. So, while I’ve eaten plenty of crabs, mostly steamed, it’s mainly been as a guest rather than a host. When we decided to make crabs for Elizabeth’s birthday party, I was simultaneously excited about taking on something new and a little gun-shy, haunted by the memory of a Lobster that Would Not Die a few summers ago. But, since all household tasks involving killing creatures larger than flies fall within my purview, I took a drink and got to work.
Although steaming is the way crabs are normally dealt with in Virginia, we decided to go with a lowcountry boil (also known as a crab boil or Frogmore stew), a dish from South Carolina that includes (at least as we made it) crabs, shrimp, sausage, potatoes, and corn all in one pot and is served dumped out on craft paper or newspaper. One large pot and an unfussy presentation appealed to us since we were cooking for sixteen. As we sat under the stars picking crabs and shrimp, drinking and laughing without any thought at all of the mugginess or mosquito bites, I knew we’d made the right choice.
For other comestibles from Elizabeth’s birthday dinner party, check out this peach shrub and this peach slab pie.
And before we head into the recipe, I wanted to share some of the party-themed sponsored work we’ve been doing over on Babble. Check out our posts including five unique spins on pimento cheese (always a fave), our take on an all-meat Texas-style chili (made with a winning combination of beer and chocolate), and five simple crostini recipes.
Lowcountry Boil (adapted from our southern food bible, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook)
serves 12 – 16 people
For ease, I recommend you make this recipe in two parts, preparing the sausage and broth the night before, and add the seafood and vegetables day-of. For your own peace of mind, it’s a good idea to source your shellfish from great sellers, and make sure all of your crabs are alive and kicking before you cook them.
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 pounds andouille sausage, cut diagonally into 2 inch slices
4 serrano chilies, halved with stem and seeds removed
5 – 6 stalks celery, chopped
4 large yellow onions, chopped
4 quarts seafood stock (chicken stock will do)
2 tablespoons sea salt, plus more to taste
8 bay leaves
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1 teaspoon ground Cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
½ teaspoon celery seed
12 live blue crabs
3 pounds medium-sized Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
6 ears corn, shucked, trimmed, and halved
2 quarts whole peeled tomatoes
4 pounds shell-on, headless, deveined shrimp
½ cup apple cider vinegar
2 lemons, cut into slices
For this stew, you’ll need a 16 quart stock pot at the ready.
Heat the 16 quart pot over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil, and when it’s hot, add the sausage. Sear the sausage on each side for about three minutes. Remove the cooked sausage to a bowl, cover, and set in the fridge.
With heat still on, add the chilies and cook for about a minute. Next, add the onions and celery, and cooked until the onion is soft and translucent, about six minutes.
Add 2 cups of broth to the pot and use a large wooden spoon to stir and loosen all of the brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Next, add the sea salt, all of the spices, and all the remaining stock. Bring stew to a boil and then turn heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. If making stew the night before, off the heat, cool for a few minutes, and carefully set pot (on top of lots of heat pads) in the fridge.
The next day, set out your pot and bring the stew to a boil. While it comes up to temperature, rinse your crabs (they’re pretty muddy) under running water. If any have died in transport, discard them.
Once the water is boiling, add the crabs two at a time to the pot, submerging them immediately, and cook until they are red, about 2 – 3 minutes. Then remove each pair and cook the next two until you’ve cooked all twelve. Set your cooked crabs on a large rimmed baking sheet. Once the crabs have cooked, edge heat down to medium high.
When the crabs are cool enough to handle, flip them so they are bottom side up and find the part of their undershell that looks like a tab. Pull this back and then pry the top shell off.
Clean away the feathery gills and discard them. Using cleaver or kitchen knife, cut off the eyes and mouth of the crab, then cut them in half down the middle. Throw both halves into the stew, adding each crab as it’s ready.
With heat still on medium-high, add the potatoes and cook for 10 minutes. Check salt levels and add more if needed.
Next, add all of the canned whole tomatoes, crushing each with your hand as you go, the corn, and the reserved sausage (be sure to include any juices or fat from the bowl). Once the mixture is bubbling, edge heat down to low and simmer, uncovered, for 15 – 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are just tender.
Just before you are ready to sit down, stir the shrimp into the stew, cook until they are pink, about 3 minutes, and then off the heat. Stir in the apple cider vinegar and lemon slices.
Keep in mind that, owing to the crabs, the very bottom of this cauldron is likely to be sandy, so you’ll want to avoid tipping the sand out onto the food. For ease, we ladled the stew into big bowls and platters, and scattered them around the large table family style. Our stew was served with brown rice, though no one really touched it.