Let’s have a philosophical debate about the way we all use cookbooks. Then murder a small creature so we can make an obscure recipe from one of our favourite recipe books.
We’d like to ask you all a genuinely serious question, and we’d be genuinely interested in what you say:
When you buy a recipe book, how many recipes do you actually cook from it?
Now, your answer might depend on how many cookbooks you buy each year, how often you like to experiment, or whether your household has regularly-demanded favourites.
For instance, we love a Sunday Roast Chicken, but it’s by no means a routine thing (recent Sundays we’ve been reduced to instant noodles as we focus our efforts and equipment making Heston’s Perfection recipes). There’s simple easy recipes that are useful to fall back on, like Heston’s Spaghetti Carbonara, or more indulgent stuff I’ll find an excuse to cook, like that Gordon Ramsay Salmon en Croute recipe. All of this gets in the way of trying new recipes.
We still enjoy buying new cookbooks, but we might only get to cook a handful of recipes from each new one we buy. How did we get on with some recent acquisitions?
Crispy Squirrel and Vimto Trifle by Robert Own Brown
The anecdotes in this book are as fun to read as the modern take on Lancashire recipes, from a chef who trained alongside, and is good friends with, the legendary Fergus Henderson. It’s a Jay Rayner favourite too. But a fixation with awkward-to-source meats and a fondness for icky bits means we’ve only cooked about three recipes from it.
Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop
As a blisteringly authentic and magnificently educational book that we cannot praise enough. Delicious stuff that you can and should make regularly.
101 Sandwiches by Helen Graves
A bright and varied book that’s so well written you could read it simply for fun. We’ve made quite a lot of the stuff in here, although not necessarily intentionally.
Historic Heston by Heston Blumenthal
Don’t be daft. We haven’t cooked a single thing from this (though I guess Meat Fruit and Spiced Pigeon could appear on this blog in the very distant future).
We’d love to hear about your own favourite books, and how many recipes you typically cook from them.
We’re asking this not just because we’re nosy, but because we want to know what it is about a particular recipe in a particular book that makes you want to cook it. Or which recipes you look at and decide that you will never, ever make them.
All of which brings us back to what is naturally one of our favourite cookbooks, Heston Blumenthal at Home from 2011.
It’s a light, fun and varied read. Recipes range from simple to complex, traditional dishes alongside Heston’s trademark wacky combinations. The Carbonara we mentioned before is in here, you can knock it out in about half an hour. But then there’s a recipe for something called “Arlette with Pressed Apple Terrine” – a two day affair which sounds more like a gauntlet thrown down to home cooks, daring you to be bold / stupid enough to make it.
The Arlette recipe in question requires several hours to make the assorted layers and garnishes, plus a few obscure ingredients. We’d all have been disappointed if Heston’s recipe book didn’t contain a few of these unrealistic recipes that’ll drain your free time and energy, but it’s probably one of the recipes in the book you’re most-likely to decide you won’t cook.
Which sounds just like the recipe we’re tackling today, Heston’s Crab Risotto recipe. Another one we originally assumed we’d never cook.
If you find it in the book it’s just a single page of sparse text (but no encouraging photo). But, as Andy G has sagely pointed out, there’s some cheating going on. The ingredients list asks for “Crab Stock”, which is a 4 hour recipe that yields twice as much as you’ll ever need, and has absolutely no other purpose than the crab risotto. Another listed ingredient is Heston’s Acidulated Butter recipe, which takes a further hour, and which we hated last time we made it, for Heston’s Beetroot Spelt Risotto recipe.
Basically, Heston’s Crab Risotto recipe is very demanding and is going to take well over a day for you to make all of it’s components. If ever there was a candidate for a recipe you wouldn’t cook from a recipe book it’s this one.
Still, we’re starting to enjoy making risottos, and we actually had some (carnarolli rice-infused) Acidulated Butter left over from making Heston’s In Search of Perfection Risotto recipe. So that only leaves us the 4-hour Crab Stock to make. Simple, then.
Recipes: Heston’s Crab Risotto recipe
Special Equipment: Pressure Cooker, shell cracking claws or heavy knife
Special Ingredients: A live crab
Time: About 4 hours
WARNING: The following section contains graphic images and a callous description of the steps required to kill and prepare a live crab. If you think you might be offended or unsettled by this, please stop reading now.
Step 1: Obtain a Live Crab
Here’s the crucial bit of the recipe notes from the book Heston at Home:
Which means our first order of business is getting ourselves a live crab to take home and kill. Luckily the Wing Yip cash & carry is only a few minutes’ drive from work, and they have a tank full of the things.
They’ll put the poor crab, all thrashing legs and claws, into a plastic bag so you can transport it home.
Ours made a lot of clicking noises on the ride back. Like that ghost in Ju-On films. Very unsettling.
Crustaceans and shellfish decompose incredibly rapidly. That’s why you always throw away mussels that don’t open, the rotting meat can ruin a dish. It’s also why restaurants serving crab and lobster like to display them alive in tanks – freshness is vital for quality and taste.
The best way to keep your crab alive and fresh at home is to pack him or her into a bowl then cover with damp newspaper. I’ve used the front page of my local paper.
The crab still won’t last long in this environment. You really do need to eat them the same day you buy them.
Step 2: Kill the Live Crab
There’s a marvellous passage in the book “Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson which describes a Puritan Reverend (and father of one of the protagonists), Godfrey Waterhouse IV, as “the most stupendous badass of all time”.
It’s a genuinely wonderful bit of writing, arguing that even someone as humble and pleasant as our hero’s religious dad is “a nightmarishly lethal, mimetically programmed death machine”. These deadly traits are established, the book argues, by virtue of having descendants who, combined, spent the previous 3 billion years evolving, killing and outliving their rivals to guarantee Godfrey Waterhouse IV a place on the planet. As the book puts it “Everyone and everything that wasn’t a stupendous badass was dead”.
This idea that, like all of us who are here on earth thanks to Darwinian principles of natural selection, a quiet and unassuming small-town preacher is “the most stupendous badass of all time” becomes especially significant as we try to describe the absolute fiasco of me trying to kill a live crab.
This should’ve been easy. After all, I’m a fellow member of the human race. And, as Stephenson and Darwin both suggest, we humans are a vicious and deadly species of animal that’s spent its time on the earth evolving or inventing ways of killing every other living creature we encounter. From sharpened rocks to remotely-operated drones, we’ve made sure we can dispatch any other form of life, including vast swathes of our own population. Dodos, Bluefin Tuna, wedding parties in North Waziristan -there is literally nothing human beings won’t kill.
All those above notions make an absolute mockery of my comically inept attempts to kill our live crab. I’d never done this before, so I was relying upon Heston’s instructions in the book, which tell you to simply jam a screwdriver between the crab’s eyes, to “kill it instantly”.
The only problem is that the bit between the crab’s eyes is solid, impenetrable shell. You have to jam the screwdriver into its mouth. I’m so, so very glad that there’s no humiliating video of me tentatively giving our crab an experimental poke in the gob, only for it to start thrashing about, whereupon I let out a high-pitched little yelp and dropped it into the sink like a frightened child. (I performed the murder over the sink, reasoning that if I did drop the crab it’d have less chance of escaping to scuttle about and nuisance me).
In my defence we should remind ourselves that, judged by similar Darwinian principles and arguments from Neal Stephenson, the crab is also “a stupendous badass”.
If you’re ever going to do this yourself I need to warn you all about two things. First: crabs have quite strong jaws. The crab doesn’t want anything inside those jaws that it hasn’t chosen to be there, including screwdrivers. It will not co-operate.
Secondly, they twitch. No matter how deep you drive that DIY-tool into the crab there’s going to be some post-mortem limb movement. This can be quite upsetting for the novice, who thinks they’ve killed the crab in one decisive move. The bit where I dropped the crab during one of these twitches, and he landed with his claw around the screwdriver, was especially disturbing. The claw-arm began to stretch-out, making it look like the crab was pulling the screwdriver back out of its death mouth.
Anyhow, it turns out I’m not the ruthless, coldblooded killer I’d always hoped I was.
Step 3: Prepare the Dark Crab Meat
Using your newfound savagery, pull all the legs and claws off the crab. At least this way they can’t twitch any more.
Set these to one side, rip off the tail and then hack the crab cleanly in half. Collect any juices in a bowl.
Ripping off the tail exposes a fairly icky bit of the crab called “dead man’s fingers” that’s essentially just a collection of gills and other stuff you wouldn’t want to eat. There is some white meat in there, but it’s a project and a ball-ache to recover it. I didn’t bother.
Discard that, then scoop out the brown meat that’s left inside the crab. In its raw state this’ll be a stringy clot of orange and brown. The heat of the risotto will cook this meat through when you come to add it. Reserve the body-shell.
Step 4: Prepare the Legs and Claws
The legs and claws need fully cooking before you can use them in the risotto. Add them to boiling water for 5 minutes. The pan needs to be at a full, rolling boil, but for the sake of blog-photo clarity I’ve taken the pan off the stove for this shot:
When they’re done you should immediately plunge the legs and claws into iced water to prevent overcooking.
Once cold you can go about the business of cracking the various bits open to get the white meat out. Our crab was on the small side (barely half a kilo) so there were lots of small, fiddly limbs.
It was an awful lot of work for very little reward. This wasn’t made any easier by us not owning any nut / crab claws. Instead I had to use the handle of a jar-opener. The results were far from ideal. Oh, and don’t do this over a tea towel, coz all the meat will stick to the surface. Duh!
Step 5: Crab Oil
Remember the reserved empty body shell from before? We’re going to use this to make crab oil. Wrap it up in a kitchen towel and, continuing this recipe’s theme of violence, bash the hell out of it with a rolling pin.
Add the shell pieces to a pan with a thin coating groundnut oil, frying them until dark and fragrant.
You now have crab-flavoured oil and roasted shell pieces. Reserve both.
Step 6: Prepare Stock Base
Ah, the gratuitous wastefulness of a Heston Blumenthal stock recipe.
We’ve said before that it can be depressing to prepare so many good ingredients only to have to throw them away. But we also understand that these ingredients are necessary to infuse flavour into the stock. Without them all the stock wouldn’t be nearly as good. Here you want the usual carrots and onions, but also leeks, mushrooms and tomatoes as well.
Combine the first four in a pressure cooker and cook for about ten minutes.
Step 7: Crab Stock
Meanwhile flame and reduce a now-familiar mixture of white wine and vermouth.
Add the wine to the pressure cooker, along with the roasted crab shells, cooked veg, tomatoes and water. Pressure cook for an hour.
Finally add a sliced lemon and some saffron threads, allow them to infuse for ten minutes. These are delicate flavours that would be destroyed by high-temperature pressure cooking.
As always, strain the stock and throw away the leftovers.
Step 8: Cooking the Risotto
Even though we had the pressure cooker out I’d decided, like an idiot, to make this risotto the old-fashioned way, with a two-pan set up.
Begin by toasting the grains of rice until nutty and fragrant.
Add wine and vermouth, and reduce while stirring constantly (I blame this specific risotto for some shoulder problems I’m having).
Add half the lovingly-made crab stock, then when it’s absorbed (about ten minutes later) add a ladle-full at a time until the risotto is cooked.
Step 9: Finish
Have ready: brown crab meat, white crab meat, acidulated butter, mascarpone cheese.
Stir these in and allow the risotto to sit for 5 minutes. During this time you can chop the herbs and try to remember where you put the crab oil. Afraid of overpowering the delicate crab flavour we used only half the herbs the recipe recommends.
Stir the herbs through, serve the risotto onto warmed plates, and drizzle over the crab oil.
Congratulations, you’ve just made Heston’s Crab Stock recipe and Heston’s Crab Risotto recipe. I hope you’re proud of yourself, you heartless murderer.
Bloody hell this was good!
We’re huge seafood fans, to the point where we’d give up bacon before we gave up, say, squid or razor clams. We’re gluttons for starchy carbohydrates too. This is a recipe that ticks a lot of our personal boxes, so maybe we’re being biased when we say this is the best risotto we’ve ever eaten.
There’s a depth, but it doesn’t overwhelm the dominant taste of the fresh crab. Mascarpone adds rich creaminess without affecting the flavour. In fact, we could’ve added the full amount of basil and tarragon without risking the quality of the dish. Even the acidulated butter works.
Is it worth all the effort? Yes. Is it worth killing a live crab for? Definitely.
In fact, despite my squeamishness the crab sketch at least taught me a valuable lesson (one that various TV chefs have been going on about for years). If you’re going to eat any kind of dead animal, you have to accept that someone somewhere had to kill it.
Those plastic-wrapped Styrofoam trays from the supermarket do everything they can to hide that unpleasant truth, but the reality is that, unless you’re a vegetarian, animals have to die to fill your plate.
Being directly involved in the death of the animal I was about to eat was a hard thing to confront, but at least means I’m no longer hypocritical in my carnivorous-ness.
This was delicious. And we’d happily make this again. But I think I’ve got a long way to go before I can rank alongside Godfrey Waterhouse IV as “the most stupendous badass of all time”.
The two main components of this dish, crab and risotto rice, aren’t that expensive. But the slew of other ingredients push the cost up. We’ve got some saved crab oil and frozen crab stock, so we will definitely be making this again. But we might use a ready-prepared crab, just for convenience. Honest.
Would you kill a crab for dinner? Are we ruthless murderers? Let us know in the comments section.