They're ugly as sin, but taste like a little bit of heaven.
Crustaceans are the living embodiment of mom's old maxims: looks aren't everything, beauty is only skin deep, look beneath the surface. With their hard exoskeletons, antennae and scuttling little legs, crustaceans in their natural settling look distinctly primeval and disconcertingly insectlike.
Diners lucky enough to find a lobster, a crab or a shrimp on their plates certainly don't think in these terms, though. They are more likely to agree with culinary scholar Waverly Root that crustaceans are "the noblest foodstuffs of the sea" -- things of beauty, indeed.
"Knowing your crustaceans" doesn't sound like such a hard job. Even the most unsophisticated among us can recognize a lobster and have eaten their fair share of shrimp. And, of course, most Marylanders are well-versed not only in recognizing crabs, but taking them apart with surgical skill.
Once past the "big three," though, the waters get considerably murkier. Just what is a crawfish, anyway? (And is it crawfish or crayfish?) How about a langouste? (And is that the same thing as a langoustine?) Is a prawn just a shrimp, or another beast entirely? We all know that "jumbo shrimp" is an oxymoron, but is "shrimp scampi" a redundancy?
In addition, because of the sheer number of crustaceans -- there are 4,400 species of edible crabs alone! -- some confusion is likely to crop up. Just ask the blue crab-loving Marylander who visits Seattle, where the large Dungeness is the crab of choice, and requests "a dozen crabs."
Following is a guide to a few of the types of crustaceans you might encounter at a seafood market or on a restaurant menu:
*Crab -- Think you know crabs, hon? Well, how many thousand can you identify? Crabs, which range from pea-sized to 12 feet wide, live in all sorts of waters in all sorts of climates on all sorts of continents. Some of the most avid crab-lovers live in Asia, and if you think crabs are getting expensive over here, consider that in China (according to the "China the Beautiful Cookbook"), connoisseurs will pay up to $100 for a 5-inch "Shanghai hairy crab."
Many different types of crab are eaten in the regional United States, four of them commercially important. In the lead is our own blue crab, caught in eastern waters from the Chesapeake to the Gulf of Mexico. Soft-shelled crabs, by the way, are not a separate species, but simply blue crabs that have molted, and have been harvested before the parchmentlike carapace can harden into a new shell.
King crabs, whose lanky legs turn up in some restaurants, ready to be cracked open and dipped in melted butter, are also available frozen. Buyers must beware, though: much of the crab that parades under that label isn't crab at all, but surimi, a paste made of fish and flavorings which has been textured and colored to look like king crab.
Stone crabs, which are something of a cult in Florida and other areas close to the gulf, are among the neatest of crabs to eat, because only the claw is consumed. When fishermen catch stone crabs they break off one claw and throw the crab back into the water, where it will grow a replacement. The season for fresh stone crab claws is short (December to February), says Bill Reynolds, manager of Fisherman's Wharf wholesale and retail seafood market on Belair Road, but the claws are available frozen at some local groceries and fish markets.
Greenish Dungeness crabs somewhat resemble their blue cousins, but are much larger; they average 1 1/2 to 3 pounds each. Many Dungeness crabs which find their way to the East are frozen, but fresh ones can be obtained on occasion; according to Mr. Reynolds, customers desperately seeking Dungeness can often get them by placing an order three to five days in advance.
Bill Devine, owner of Faidley's Seafood in Lexington Market, has carried Dungeness crabs, and other outre seafood from faraway places, but finds it not worth the trouble, in view of the limited demand. "When I was young and naive I used to order everything, and then I threw out more than I sold." He advocates a more regional approach to seafood: "We should eat what the good Lord gave us," he says tartly.
*Crawfish -- Before refrigeration, people who lived inland never got the chance to taste many crustaceans, because they spoil so quickly. But even those who had never tasted lobster or
shrimp were often familiar with the crawfish, a freshwater crustacean which resembles a miniature lobster only a few inches long.