It's a cool summer's day and you are eating crab within sight and smell of the sea. To be more accurate, you have queued at the fish shop, asked the fishmonger to dispose of the inedible bits of your chosen crustacean (heavy for its size, fat, strong claws), to crack the shells and wrap up your bits and pieces in white paper. You have found a spot on the shingle that passes for a beach, laid out the tartan picnic rug and are now winkling every last flake of ozone-scented white meat from its rust-coloured carapace. In short, you are in hog heaven.
The potential pitfalls in securing such a feast can form a list as long as your arm (the least of which is finding a fishmonger), but when crab is good - that is, spanking fresh with a deep scent of the sea, the white meat bright and each flake clearly defined, the brown meat moist but not wet, accompanied by a general feeling that your shellfish has spent very little time out of the sea - there is little that can match it.
For the most part, the less you do to a crab the more interesting it is, especially if it comes with a china dish of mild mayonnaise at its side, but that would be to miss the supreme pleasures that are crab soup, crab souffle, crab tart, crab cakes and crab salad. Yes, it is rich, sweet meat, but I find that a little cucumber and some lemon will cut the worst of it. As a soup there is none more suave or seductive, but few will want to eat very much afterwards.
Crab tart is another matter. I rarely make pastry, but for a quivering, rust-coloured tart of such delicate flavour I will happily make a fragile crust and fill it with a creamy custard and pieces of fresh shellfish. A cucumber salad of some sort is the obvious accompaniment, but I am not sure we need even that. There is something about a thin slice of freshly made tart, its pastry short and crumbly, its filling all awobble and set on a large white plate, that is so perfect as to make anything else quite unnecessary.
If I am to eat a crab salad at home, I do my utmost to keep it cool. It sounds obvious, but crab meat, especially white meat, is immensely improved by being served chilled. Crisp things are de rigueur, too: the much maligned iceberg lettuce, cucumber, spring onions, gherkins and radishes. This is partly for the marriage of textures and partly because of their ability to 'cool' the rich flavours of the shellfish.
And lastly, can I put in a plea for a plate of soft, mildly spiced crab cakes, their flesh oozing and velvety, their shells hot and faintly crisp from the frying pan? Too often such goodies are lost in the whirlwind of food fads and fashions. With the bite of chilli and the silky texture that comes from the crab's brown meat, these are little treats just too good to forget.
Warm crab and tarragon tart
It seems a bit of a pain, making pastry in summer. But you can do it in the food processor and it will be ready in seconds. The trick is to rest the dough in the fridge afterwards. Given glorious weather I use a tart such as this as the centre of a meal, offering a herb salad with matchsticks of cucumber. Raspberries afterwards would make this just about the most blissful high-summer lunch. Serves 6.
For the pastry:
200g plain flour
175g butter, cold and in small chunks
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp ice-cold water
300ml double cream
2 tsp French mustard
1 heaped tbsp tarragon leaves (about 35-40 leaves)
2 tbsp grated Parmesan
Make the pastry and set aside to rest: rub the butter into the flour, either with your fingertips or in a food processor. Add the egg yolk and water and a good pinch of salt. Push into a smooth ball and roll it on the table until it is slightly cylindrical - it will slice better in that shape. Put the pastry in the fridge to cool and rest for about half an hour.
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Slice the chilled pastry into thin rounds and press them into a 23-24cm tart tin. Press the pastry to cover the base and up the sides, making certain there are no holes. Prick the bottom with a fork to stop it bubbling and chill for 15 minutes, before baking for 15 minutes until it is dry to the touch.
Separate the eggs. Mix the yolks with the cream, add salt and pepper and mustard, then chop and add the tarragon. Stir in the crab meat. Beat the egg whites until they will stand in peaks then fold them into the crab custard with a large metal spoon. Pour the custard into the pastry case and sprinkle with Parmesan.
Turn the oven down to 190C/gas mark 5 and bake the tart for about 30-35 minutes until it is puffed and golden but slightly wobbly in the centre. Remove the tart from the oven and let it cool a little before cutting. It should be set at the edges and soft, almost runny in the centre.
Thai crab cakes
It always amuses me to find mayonnaise in crab cake recipes, but it ensures the cakes will be rich and soft. This recipe is a hybrid of the famous American crab cake and the Thai fish cake. Serves 3.
450g crab meat
6 lime leaves
1 tsp fish sauce
a handful of chopped coriander leaves
2 heaped tbsp mayonnaise (bought is fine)
2 small hot chillies
3 spring onions
75g fresh white breadcrumbs
groundnut or sunflower oil for frying
Strip the lime leaves of their veins, roll into a thin cylinder and slice finely. Put them in a bowl with the crab meat, coriander leaves and mayonnaise.
Cut the chillies in half and discard the seeds. Chop the flesh finely then add to the crab meat. Finely chop the spring onions then stir into the crab meat with a little salt and black pepper and the breadcrumbs. Leave the mixture in the fridge for half an hour then lightly flour your hands and shape into flattish patties about 5cm in diameter. There will be about 12. Fry them in shallow oil for 3-4 minutes on each side. Lift carefully from the pan and serve with halves of lime.