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Having moved to lovely Chicago a little over four years ago, people often ask me if I miss home. My answer remains the same: “I only miss the crabs… okay, and a few of my friends.” Anyone who has seen Wedding Crashers can probably guess – I’m from Maryland (because “Crab cakes and football, that’s what Maryland does” is practically our moto now).
Every year, as I’m enjoying everything Chicago’s (fleeting) summertime has to offer, just a slight part of me misses crab season; which sadly, is also quite short. An easy way to remember when crabs are ‘in’ is it’s only during months without an “R” in the spelling, i.e. May, June, July and August. Get em’ while they’re fresh people.
Never the type of girl to sit around longing for anything, I decided to take matters into my own hands and bring a piece of the East Coast out to the Midwest. After finding an authentic (albeit expensive) delivery service, I am now proud host to my Annual Crab Feast. If you’ve ever seen people “pick” Maryland Blue Crabs, or perhaps you’ve experienced this task yourself, you know it’s quite the art form. The only real universal rule is to only eat Male crabs since we need to leave the female crabs in order to help keep the population up. You can tell the difference between male and female by the shape of their ‘trap door’.
Other than that, almost anything goes. Some eat the ‘mustard’, some cringe at it. Some take the legs off first, others keep them on for leverage with the body, saving the claws for last. While there are many acceptable methods, the final goal remains the same: do not let any actual crab meat go undiscovered. You have to get in there, you have to get dirty and you have to scrape out every last morsel that you possibly can. Leaving meat behind is the number one sign of an amateur.
Because it absolutely crushes us seasoned vets to see this happening, the first year I hosted my summer soiree, I picked the crabs ahead of time for my guests and made various crab-heavy dishes including my mother’s famous crab dip (see recipe below), crab cakes with a few, fun remoulades and crab pasta. Let me tell you, while it was certainly hospitable of me, it was hard work. My hands were chapped and cut-up by the end and I vowed to come up with a more manicure-friendly solution for my second year.
That is when I created the “deconstructed crab boil” idea and it has stuck ever since. I take the elements that people are used to seeing in a traditional crawfish boil (shrimp, corn, potatoes and sausage) and made an entire side dish featuring each one of those ingredients. Then I leave the crabs as the main event and the picking of them to the guests. It’s a great meal to share over some cold beer (or Old Bay vodka) and long conversations.
Each year, I mix the menu up a bit but past crowd favorite accompaniments have included a savory corn pudding, a ‘Fiesta’ inspired corn salad, baby potatoes with caviar and crème fraiche, a bacon-laden potato salad, sausage focaccia ‘pizza’, shrimp scampi and just to freshen things up a watermelon salad. I’ve been making my own version of this summer salad for years, always changing it up a bit but perhaps the best variation I’ve found is what we make right here at The Chopping Block as part of our private event, “Summer Dinner Party” menu.
The recipe below yields a crisp, refreshing and flavorful salad. As this one suggests, you can use mint or basil. Get creative! I’ve used balsamic vinegar or lemon juice instead of red wine, and it’s always a crowd favorite. It’s a nice counter balance to the Old Bay Spice that coats the crabs and a welcomed, simple dish when people are tired of working so hard for that crab meat. I hope you enjoy these recipes– and squeeze in some crabs during the last few days of the season!
16 oz. cream cheese, softened
8 oz. sour cream
4 Tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon garlic salt
1 pound backfin crabmeat
4 oz. (1 cup) shredded cheddar cheese
Paprika – optional, Marylanders prefer Old Bay
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Blend all ingredients (except the crabmeat and 1/2 of the cheese) in the blender.
Fold in the crabmeat and put in serving dish.
Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.
Remove from oven and top with the remaining cheese and sprinkle paprika.
Serve with mild crackers.
The entire dip can be made up to a day ahead of time and baked right before serving. This ALWAYS is finished, so I sometimes double the recipe to ensure I have leftovers.
Watermelon and Feta Salad with Mint or Basil
Yield: 4-6 servings as an appetizer
Active time: 20 minutes
Start to finish: 20 minutes
2 cups seedless watermelon, medium dice
2 cups arugula
1 shallot, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh mint or basil, chiffonade
Red wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled
Gently toss together the watermelon, arugula, shallot and mint or basil.
Dress with the vinegar and olive oil to taste, and season with salt and pepper.
Spoon the salad onto plates and top with a sprinkling of feta cheese .
Gina arrived in Chicago, from Washington, DC, four years ago and hasn’t stopped eating since. When not busy leading the Event Sales team at The Chopping Block, she can be found dining in this city’s most fabulous restaurants or cooking up a new recipe based on ingredients grown in her urban garden. Coming from a restaurant family, it’s only natural that Gina’s favorite things in life include bacon, champagne and hosting impromptu get-togethers centered around whatever themed-menu she most recently dreamed up. If she meets you, you may just get invited to one of her annual Academy Award, Crab Feast, or Godfather Trilogy parties (complete with her grandmother’s homemade meatballs for everyone to take home).