Want the best crab soup? Start with an Old Bay spoon

October 10, 2001|By Rob Kasper

HOW DO YOU tweak a classic? That is the question about a dozen area chefs wrestled with last week as they prepared their entries for the annual Old Bay Crab Soup Stakes at Harborplace.

Both the white cream of crab soup and its red vegetable-laden cousin are sacrosanct dishes in many Maryland homes. Recipes are passed down, like family silver, from generation to generation.

Restaurant chefs, however, can be more adventuresome with crab soup. They can play with conventional recipes; they can think beyond the same old formula. They might roast the vegetables used in their red crab soup. Or they might serve the soups in unusual containers made of bread, or in hollowed-out pumpkins.

That is what some of the chefs did in this year's contest, which I helped judge. As I sipped soups, I was on the lookout for tips from the chefs on how to improve the soup I make at home.

The chefs responsible for the winning cream of crab soup, Greg Griffie and Tim Mullen of Windows Restaurant in the Renaissance, told me they used a familiar recipe. That recipe, which relies heavily on cream and on soup crabs that have lots of tangy "mustard" in their bodies, has served the chefs well. In the past 12 years their soup has won top honors at the contest nine times. The chefs did serve the soup in an unusual container; a bowl made of bread. But they said they had done that before.

This year, however, they changed their soup spoon.

They served the soup with a spoon made of pastry and flavored with - what else? - Old Bay. It was the best-tasting soup spoon I have ever eaten. It lasted several minutes before dissolving in mid-slurp. It was replaced by a plastic spoon, which was functional but lacking in flavor.

A soup bowl that caught my eye was the one David Morel, executive chef at City Lights Seafood, served his vegetable-based soup in. The serving vessel was a pumpkin. When it was hollowed out, it made a fine-looking bowl, just the thing to use when you want to wow the neighbors. Morel said these would-be soup bowls are sold at produce markets and are called "mini-pumpkins." He cautioned that carving them requires a sharp knife and a steady hand.

Two prize-winning chefs, Sean Sims and Jeff Chesney of San Marco restaurant in the Pikesville Hilton, told me that one key to crab soup success is bacon. They roasted the vegetables for their crab soup in bacon juices. Their soup was picked by the judges as the best red crab soup. "I use bacon instead of beef to make the soup base," Sims said. "You can't beat pork."

In addition, the chefs suggested adding a shot of sherry just before the soup is served. Sherry is often used in cream of crab soups, but Sims said he used it in the red vegetable-based version because it "heightens the flavors."

Jerry Smith, owner of PJ's Pub, and Rob Engle, the chef, preached patience. Their soup was the crowd's pick as the top vegetable-based soup. When I asked about their formula for happiness in crab soup, Smith said use fresh crab meat and take your time. "We use local crabs," Smith said, "and we make the soup one day and serve it the next. Soup always tastes better the second day."

At the end of the day, I reviewed what I had been told. To add a little flair to my same-old crab soup routine, I could serve it with an edible spoon. I could pour it into a carved-out pumpkin. I could add a shot of sherry. Or I could make the soup one day, then eat it the next. It was good advice, but it was a lot to swallow.

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