When it comes to crab soup, the proof is in the taste

October 26, 1997|By Rob Kasper

GOOD CRAB-SOUP makers can be slippery. Ask them to share their secrets and they might give you a recipe that "accidentally" leaves a few steps out. Sometimes they talk freely. But later you find yourself scratching your head and wondering whether what they told you made any sense.

That is what happened when I asked probing questions of some of the region's top crab-soup makers. I grilled the soup makers at Peerce's Plantation, Wayne's Bar-B-Que, Windows at the Renaissance hotel and Bistro 300 at the Hyatt hotel. The soups made by these cooks had won top honors in the recent crab-soup contest sponsored by Old Bay seasoning. The contest produced two sets of winners in two categories. One set of winners was picked by a panel of judges, the other, the People's Choice, was selected by the crowd that watched the proceedings in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. One category was Maryland crab soup, the traditional red, vegetable-base soup.

The other was cream of crab soup.

Immediately after hearing the chefs talk about their soups, I thought I had learned something about soups. But the more I pondered what they had told me, the less I knew.

For instance, Peerce's chef Brian Boston, whose vegetable-base soup was the judges' pick, told me that timing was a key to successful soup making.

Boston said he never serves his crab soup on the day it is made. "You always wait one day, or even two days," Boston said. This pause apparently gives the ingredients time to get know one another. After the ingredients are on good terms with one another, they present a flavorful, harmonious front, Boston said.

But Wayne Brokke told me he never waits. The red crab soup at his Harborplace restaurant, Wayne's Bar-B-Que, is served the day it is made. This no-waiting policy ensures that the vegetables in the soup are crisp, Brokke said, adding, "That's the way I like vegetables to taste."

The soup-sipping public apparently likes it, too, because Brokke's potage won the contest's People's Choice award for vegetable soups.

One point of agreement between Boston and Brokke was cabbage. Both said cabbage was vital to a successful red crab soup.

"It has a sweet flavor," said Boston.

"It is as important as the crab meat," said Brokke.

After talking to the winning cream-of-crab-soup makers, I got the impression that a key to making this kind of crab soup was using well-dressed, attractive crabs.

At the Hyatt, for instance, the crabs used in the early stages of soup-making must keep their shells on. That is what Collins Adego told me. When he and his Bistro 300 colleague Chris Dugenske made the stock for the cream-of-crab soup that won xTC the People's Choice award, they did not remove the shells from the crabs. Instead, the cooks insisted that the crabs retain their outer covering. The reason for this dress code was flavor, not propriety, Adego said. "The shells give the stock flavor," he said.

Meanwhile, over at the Renaissance, hotel executive chef Tim Mullen seems to have instructed his soup makers to be on the lookout for good-looking crabs. According to Mullen, attractive crabs are those carrying a lot of mustard. Mullen was referring to the crab's hepatopancreas, which is called the mustard because it looks like the yellow stuff you put on hot dogs.

"Crabs with more mustard have more flavor," Mullen said. This is important in the final stages of soup making, when the lumps of crab meat are added to the stock, he said. An ideal situation for a soup maker, Mullen said, is to finish off the preparation of your cream of crab soup by adding lumps of crab meat covered with crab mustard. His winning soup, picked by the judges as top cream of crab, was made with mustard-loaded beauties, Mullen said.

I was able to get one recipe from the four winning chefs. Brokke gave me the recipe for his crowd-pleasing vegetable-base crab soup. Brokke vowed that this was a tell-all recipe. But I suspect that, like most good soup makers, he might have left out a secret or two.

Wayne's Maryland crab soup

Serves 8

3 cups chopped and peeled tomatoes with juice

1 1/2 cups chopped onions

1 1/2 cups chopped celery

2 cups chopped potatoes

1 1/2 cups lima beans

1 1/2 cups peas

1 1/2 cups green beans

1 1/2 cups corn

1 1/2 cups chopped carrots

1 cup chopped cabbage

1 pound special crab meat

1 pound claw meat

6 soup crabs, cleaned but not cooked

1 1/2 tablespoons Old Bay

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

3/4 tablespoons Tabasco

1 1/2 bay leaves

3 tablespoons beef stock

3 tablespoons chicken stock

salt and pepper to taste

3 tablespoons sugar

2 gallons water

In large soup pot, bring the water, chicken and beef stocks to boil.

Thoroughly rinse soup crabs, cut in half and add to stock and bring back to boil, cooking until crabs turn red. Skim.

Add potatoes, spices and sugar. Cook on medium heat until the potatoes are tender, about 45 minutes.

Add all vegetables and cook on medium heat for 10-15 minutes.

Add claw and special crab meat, cook on medium heat for 10 minutes.

Add salt and pepper, cook on medium heat for 30 minutes.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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