16 September, 2007

the mystery of softshell crabs, and a gorgeous chicken dish




















Just a photo to add to the endless compilation of images of Avery harassing wild birds in public places. She will not be disturbed in her quest to catch one, and follows them around saying, "Here chickabiddy, here chickabiddy," a la Betsy-Tacy.

Well, I can report a qualified success on the softshell crabs! I say "qualified," because while they were very good, they were nothing at ALL like the restaurant crabs I love so much and wanted to replicate. Somehow in the space between getting the list of ingredients and the cooking method from the nice waitress at Mandarin Kitchen, and producing them in my own kitchen, a crucial element (probably magic) was lost. They were very good, and since you probably haven't sampled them from Mandarin Kitchen, I can give you this recipe with all confidence that you will enjoy it. It just wasn't what I was expecting.

Deep-Fried Softshell Crabs with Garlic and Chilli
(serves three)


6 softshell crabs, thoroughly thawed and drained
2 tbsps peanut oil
1 tsp sesame oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium-hot red chillies, minced
1 bunch scallions (salad onions), sliced thin
1-inch knob ginger, chopped
generous pinch sea salt, preferably Maldon
generous amount fresh-ground black pepper
peanut oil to come up 3 inches in cooking utensil (I used a borrowed small wok, thanks, Vincent)
bowl of all-purpose flour

In a small skillet, fry the garlic, chillies, scallions and ginger in the two oils. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and keep on low heat.

Now be ready with a platter lined with several layers of paper towel. Heat the peanut oil in the wok until a little piece of bread or onion fries instantly. Dip the crabs one by one in the flour to coat thoroughly and place carefully in the hot oil. Be prepared to be spit upon occasionally, so wear an all-covering apron. Carefully turn the crab over (mine tended to want to lie on their sides) to make sure all surfaces are cooked directly in the oil. The crabs will float, which means the top bit will not be submerged. Turn frequently. After about five minutes in the oil, remove with a slotted spoon or tongs and drain on the paper towel.

I had two crabs in the oil at any given time, watching them carefully to remember which one had gone in first.

Place on a pretty plate and sprinkle with the garnish. Serve immediately.

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They were delicious! I cannot praise "The Fish Society" highly enough. The crabs arrived promptly, completely frozen in dry ice packs. Their quality was much higher than the actual crab in the restaurant: meaty and substantial, and tasting of perfectly fresh seafood. I will happily order from them again. Apparently, this UK-run company gets its softshells from Thailand, but the purveyors there are former Bostonian fishermen! I love that. You would not believe the variety of seafood available from this company. Dive in and order something exotic.

When I told Becky blithely last week that I was going to buy some softshell crabs (not knowing that it simply can't be done outside Chinatown and I was too intimidated), she laughed and said, "Oh, Mark will be by later then to pick up Anna and... some softshell crabs. He adores them." So it was but the work of a moment to pick up the phone when they arrived in the post and arrange a dinner. Naturally not one single child would consider eating one, nor would Becky herself, so she brought her incomparable Chicken Marbella, chock-a-block with garlic, olive, capers and prunes. It was perfect, and the noodles and sprouts I made to go with both went down a treat. Anna, Avery and Ellie were all rather filthy in their horseback riding gear, after a day at the barn, but never mind. Ashley was, in her teenage way, perfectly turned out and sat with the adults. That mysterious transformation from little girl to young lady is, of course, taking place.

Becky and Mark have the loveliest aura of Southern gentlefolk! I love to hear Becky say "visit" as she does. "It's so nice to have a chance to visit," she will say, or tell Mark on the phone, "I'm just here visiting with Kristen." It's good to have people in your life who you know instinctively (and by now with a fair amount of practical proof!) will always, always do the right thing in any situation. In any big city, any big competitive environment, I've found, there's a goodly display of expediency. What will this relationship, or this decision, net me today? some people ask themselves. This was SO not a part of my growing up in the Midwest (or at least in my family, with our friends) that when I first encountered it in the East, and certainly in London, I was taken aback. It's not evil, it's just... expedient. And happily, Becky and Mark are just about the least expedient people I know. They are in it for being good, and honest. It's certainly an example I like having in my life, and set before my daughter. And they're a hoot, besides! John and Mark know lots of business people in common, so stories were fast and furious about "idiot hedge fund managers I have knows," and "investment bankers who have screamed at me," and extravagant birthday parties run amok in the business world.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that the life John has been living for the past year, happily unemployed, has run its course. His mind really thrives on all those stories, all that knowledge and history. It's about time for him to get a job. But nothing, nothing could ever replace the world we've had for a year. A world with one small child and two parents to look after her, lunch together every day, my husband to tell everything to all day, get his perspective, a year when he knew all the stories, all Avery's friends, never missed a performance or a party or a playdate. Still, all good things must come to an end, and the realisation of this dawned last week when a bunch of us mothers (John included) were talking about senior school decision. "It's all about the uniform," John declared. "The Godolphin gray and red is really nice..." Suddenly he caught Becky's eye and she burst out laughing. He said ruefully, "It's time for me to get a job, when I have opinions on SCHOOL UNIFORMS!"

In any case, we had a lovely evening. Becky brought just enough dessert for all of us (to supplement my dessert-challenged contribution: mixed berries with Cointreau): peanut butter cookies topped with mini Reese's peanut butter cups and chocolate chips. Only... while the little girls were away from the table playing dressup or whatever, we ate them ALL. Oops. A super evening with super friends.

Becky's Chicken Marbella
(serves 10-12)

4 chickens, 2 1/2 pounds each, quartered
1 head of garlic, peeled and pureed
1/4 cup oregano
coarse salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup pitted Spanish green olives
1/2 cup capers with a bit of juice
6 bay leaves
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup Italian parsley or cilantro, finely chopped

In a large bowl combine chicken, garlic, oregano, pepper, salt, vinegar, olive, oil, prunes, olives, capers and bay leaves. Cover and let marinate refrigerated overnight.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Arrange chicken in a single layer in 1 or 2 shallow baking pans (depending on size) and spoon marinade over it evenly. Sprinkle chicken pieces with brown sugar and pour white wine around them. Bake for 50 minutes-1 hour (you know your oven).

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So today was another day, and I traipsed over after school to my friend Nancy's house with Avery and Nancy's adorable daughter Sally, to have a snack and do homework and catch up on life gossip. On the way Avery and Sally commiserated on the not so much evil, as completely incompetent French teacher at King's College. "Mademoiselle... Stanway!" Sally chortled. "My brother calls her Mademoiselle Steinway, because he's obsessed with piano," she added, and Avery said, "We learned the signs of the ZODIAC today. Why? I can't even say 'down.' Or 'up' for that matter!" We arrived at their gorgeous Nash house off Regent's Park and Diana served us a lovely fresh apple cake and the girls settled down to homework while we chatted. Diana is the UK coordinator for Barack Obama's campaign, so I was happy to get a bird's-eye view of that situation. I don't know enough, frankly, to have a strong opinion on the various candidates, but Diana is passionate about Obama (as she is about everything she cares about; Diana is an intense and intensely passionate person in general), so I listened. I wish I had the firm conviction that any one person can change anything as enormous as the American political scene (and therefore, I'm afraid, a lot of other things). I'm too much of a dreamy non-politician to have a firm grasp of any given year's choices to get too awfully committed to any one of them. But it's a lot of fun to have the chance to learn from the woman behind the man (at least one of them!).

Tonight I'm abandoning my family to leftovers (Becky's chicken will not go unappreciated, thank you!), while I head with my friend Sue (aka 6point7 to see an advance screening of "As You Like It" at Bafta. I'll be interesting tomorrow, I promise.

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