Mexican chef adds a hint of jalapeno to crab soup

October 18, 1998|By Rob Kasper

SHORTLY AFTER Ismael Gutierrez, chef at Baltimore's Capitol City Brewing Co., won first place in the cream of crab division of the Old Bay Crab Soup Stakes, I asked him if he had used any "secret" ingredients.

He said he had. It was a jalapeno pepper. Gutierrez said that near the end of the soup-making process he had dropped finely diced pieces of the fiery pepper into the mixture.

"It gives the soup a hint of spiciness," Gutierrez said, "and pulls the flavors together."

While many Marylanders would roll their eyes at the notion of putting such a south-of-the-border flavor into a Mid-Atlantic mainstay, folks who sipped the soup liked the results of the union.

A panel of judges picked it as the best of nine cream of crab soups entered by Baltimore-area restaurants in the contest. There were four judges - Donna Crivello, co-owner of Donna's coffee bars; Roz Healy, deputy director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and Tourism; KevanVetter, executive chef of McCormick & Co.; and me. The jalapeno number was also a crowd favorite, picking up the People's Choice award for cream of crabs soups. This meant it received the most votes of the soup-sipping public, folks who showed up for the noontime Harborplace event to sample soup and vote for their favorite.

Gutierrez, a native of Mexico, worked at restaurants in Guadalajara, Los Angeles and Washington before coming to Capitol City, a Harborplace restaurant that brews its own beer. The trick to putting a hot pepper in cream of crab soup, he said, is not to go overboard. "I just put a little ... maybe two cups of peppers for eight gallons of soup."

The other big winner in the contest was Maryland crab soup made by John Maxwell, executive chef at City Lights Cafe in Harborplace. This version of crab soup has a vegetable base, and unlike its cream-colored cousin, is a vivid red hue.

Maxwell's soup also picked up two awards, winning both the approval of the panel of judges and the People's Choice award for vegetable-base soup.

This was the first time in the contest's 10-year history that judges and the public picked the same soups as the best.

Maxwell, who grew up in Rosedale and worked at restaurants in San Antonio and Washington before returning to the Baltimore area, said the secret to making a Maryland crab soup was to start with homemade stock.

"If you use a [canned] base, it can overpower the crab," Maxwell said. Maxwell said he makes his own stock, a time-consuming process.

Another key, he said, is to have plenty of crab shells in your simmering stock. "You get a lot of good flavor from the shells," he said.

Two vital vegetables in his Maryland crab soup, Maxwell said, are cabbage and potatoes.

"Cabbage adds sweetness," Maxwell said, echoing the pro-cabbage views expressed by Wayne Brokke of Wayne's Bar-B-Que, the fellow who won the People's Choice award for Maryland crab in last year's contest.

Maxwell said he prefers red potatoes over yellow potatoes. The crimson spuds "add nice, earthy tones" to the flavor, he said.

Overall, what a chef is shooting for when he makes any kind of crab soup, is "a marriage of ingredients," Maxwell said.

"You want a balance between the sweetness of the crab with the richness of the broth," he said.

The secret of the happy marriage, I guess, varies from chef to chef.

Some say it is cabbage, some potatoes. And now, one chef says jalapenos.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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