Maine’s peekytoe crabs (Cancer irroratus) were until recently considered a nuisance bycatch, and a thief of lobster bait. They still steal bait but they have gained a respect of sorts (with the cute new name) as a source of delicious meat. Truth be told, it takes a lot of work to get a very small amount of meat from these guys. But with a little picking practice and by carefully choosing only the largest specimens, the sweet, sweet crabmeat is a nice seafood and is a great foundation for crab cakes or crab salad. Warning! You may never go back to the stuff in the can!
In New York City restaurants the peekytoe has achieved star status. Feel like splurging on a $125 dinner? Head over to Le Bernardin Restaurant at 155 W 51st Street and check out their menu:
So if you want to create your own masterpiece with this newly famous Maine crustacean, follow these steps:
Choose crabs in the 1/2 lb (or more) range. They measure close to 5″ across and are a mottled red in color. They turn this color from a more variegated green-brown as they mature, so that’s a good indicator of which ones you should bother with. I have heard some say that you can break one claw off all crabs and throw the rest back (to grow another) but this disturbs me.
- Boil crabs for 10 minutes after the water returns to a boil. Now the crabs are almost ready for picking. All they need is to cool off. Run them under cold water or refrigerate them for a while.
- Use a small hammer and wood block to go after the claws and legs. The meat is as delicate as the shell is brittle, so tap lightly or you will smash the meat and send the shell fragments into it. Try to get the meat out of all the leg and claw segments. If the crab is on the small side you may skip the smaller segments.
Break out and clean the center body where the legs attach. There is a surprising amount of meat here. There’s gill, intestine and liver tissue which need to be cleaned off. The yellow stuff is liver and should be rinsed away. This was once considered great for sauces, but is now known to contain toxins, including PSP, paralytic shellfish poison, get rid of it. What you’re left with is a sort of honeycomb of muscles. The honeycomb is made of a very thin shell and can be broken apart with your hands. The hard part is separating these white shell fragments from the white meat. You may need better light!
- Allow 20-25 minutes per crab to pick. That’s how long it took me. An hour and a half to pick four crabs and I got 6-1/2 oz. of meat. This is a good amount for two people, but you have to decide if it’s worth it. Many hands make lighter work.
A professional peekytoe picker (often the wife of a lobsterman) can pick 20 lbs per day. Assuming an eight hour day, that’s 2.5 pounds per hour. At my rate it would take me 3.7 hours to get one pound, so the pros are 9.25 times as fast as me! Remember this when you want to cook with peekytoe. It may be worth it to find a local picker and buy from her, providing she isn’t working exclusively for a fancy NY restaurant! New rules now require pickers to work in a building separate from their house, so many were driven out of business or “underground”. Don’t expect to find one easily. The “Maine crab meat” sold in our supermarkets may contain meat from other species, but it’s not too far off. Make sure it’s fresh.
Now that you have a quantity of crab meat, what do you do with it? Rather than making crab cakes, I like to feature uses which allow the sweet flavor to shine, like a salad or dip. I also like to plan on using it all up as soon as possible. Crab meat should not be kept for more than 48 hours in the refrigerator. Here’s a recipe from this site I made last night. It was a hit. I served it over a toasted flour tortilla. I split the ingredients in half due to my small amount of meat.
Serve crab salad with a slice of avocado on salad greens.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 10 minutes
- 2 cups cooked cooled crab meat, flaked
- 1 cup diced celery
- 1/4 cup chopped green or red bell pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
- mixed salad greens
- 6 avocado wedges, optional
I also like to make a dip using cream cheese and a bit of mayo. This stuff is mucho rich, so make sure you have a big group to eat it:
- 0ne package (8 ounces) cream cheese, whipped up with:
- 2 tbsp Mayo or sour cream or both and
- 6 oz peekytoe crab meat with
- the juice from 1/2 lemon or lime and salt to taste.
Mix well and serve with your chips or veggies of choice.