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Hard Crab Stew, No Longer Hard (Or Messy)

Jul 4, 2013
Originally published on July 4, 2013 9:58 pm

Some of the greatest summer food experiences take you outside. Whether it's shucking corn and barbecuing or spitting watermelon seeds, an outdoor setting can add a whole new dimension to food.

Bill Smith, chef at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C., says some of his favorite summer food memories took place at picnic tables over messy bowls of his grandmother's crab stew. He shared a recipe for All Things Considered's Found Recipes series.

Smith grew up off the coast of North Carolina, fishing and pulling in blue crabs in the summer after they'd developed hard shells after molting.

"[Crab stew was] one of the big treats every summer," he says. "It was always a huge deal — everybody loved it."

But it's a very messy dish. The crabs are still in their shells so even though it's like soup, Smith says you have to use your hands to pick out the meat as you go.

"A lot of times, because the crabs are such a mess and they're so much trouble, you'd take like one crab to be polite, but what you really want was just a bowl of the soup," he says.

That miracle stew broth is just water, bay leaves, thyme, red pepper flakes, potatoes and onion, thickened with a slurry of cornmeal and water at the last minute. But Smith says the best part is the slice of white bread that's stuck to the bottom of the bowl.

"You pour the soup and the crabs over the top of that, and when you get all done, you have that at the bottom," he says.

Even though the stew is one of Smith's favorite things from growing up, he never put it on the menu at Crook's Corner because it was too messy.

"So I just thought, well, you know, maybe I'll just make the soup because everybody likes that the best anyway — throw the crabs away," he says.

He still used the crabs and some of the meat to make the soup and kept a crab claw hung over the side. It was a success. "People cleaned their bowls," he says.

Recipe: Crab Stew

Bill Smith says claw crackers would be handy for eating this dish. "We used to get yelled at for cracking the claws with our teeth," he says. In the pictured version, fried biscuit dough croutons replace the white bread listed in the recipe.

Serves a crowd

1/2 pound sidemeat or fatback

2 medium onions, peeled and cut into large dice

2 dozen hard crabs, cleaned and halved

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

4 bay leaves

1 teaspoon thyme

6 baking-sized potatoes, peeled and cut into eighths

3/4 cups all-purpose corn meal, stirred into two cups of cold water

Salt and pepper to taste

Sliced white bread

Render the sidemeat in a large stock pot. Do this slowly, as it has a low smoking point and you want to extract as much fat as possible before it gets too brown. It will resemble crisp bacon in color when ready. Add the onions and saute until soft but not brown. Add the crabs and cover with cold water. Add the red pepper, bay and thyme. Bring to a boil, then turn back to a simmer. Cook for half an hour, and then add the potatoes. Cook until they are well done, 15 to 20 minutes more. Turn up the heat a little (but you don't want a hard boil) and stir in the cornmeal and water. This will be a little difficult because of the crabs, but you need to mix the slurry in thoroughly. Bring the stew back to a simmer until it begins to thicken. Add salt and pepper to taste.

To serve, put a slice or two of bread in the bottom of large soup bowls and ladle the stew, crabs and all, on top.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit



Two eat today's Found Recipe, you need to go outside, cover a picnic table with plenty of newspaper and grab some paper towels. It's a summer stew that you eat with your hands.

BILL SMITH: Hey, I'm Bill Smith and I am the chef at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And I'm here today to tell you about Hard Crab Stew, which is sort of a re-found recipe of mine, something from when I was growing up.


SMITH: When we were little, I grew up on the coast of North Carolina, and we grew up fishing and things like that. And we would catch crabs, blue crabs - that's a native crab here.


SMITH: In the winter they buried in the mud. And then in the spring they come up and they shed and they're soft shells, which is a whole different story. It's yum, you know.


SMITH: When they are finished molting, then you have hard crabs.


SMITH: One of the big treats every summer was a big crab stew. Grandmother would make it. And it's a messy thing to eat because the crabs are still in the shell in the stew. So that even though it's like soup, you have to use your hands to shell the crabs, pick out the meat and stuff as you go. So we were always made to go outside and have it. We'd have it in warm weather out on the picnic table on the beach or at grandma's yard, maybe once or twice a summer.


SMITH: It was always a huge deal. Everybody loved it. And a lot of times you just, because the crabs were such a mess and they're so much trouble, you take like one crab to be polite. But what you really want is just a bowl of the soup.


SMITH: Hard Crab Stew, it's just crabs, water and potatoes and onions. And you cook all that together and you thicken with a slurry of cornmeal and water at the last minute. It's got a little bit of cayenne pepper, so it's got some kick.


SMITH: But the most remarkable thing to me, looking back on it now, (unintelligible), is that you lay a big piece of slice of white bread in the bottom of the bowl. And you pour the soup and the crabs over the top of that, and when you get all done you have that at the bottom. And that's the best part.


SMITH: Well, I thought about this for years, 'cause it's one of my favorite things. And it's one of the few things that I grew up with that I haven't put on the menu at the restaurant at some point because it was such a mess.


SMITH: So I just thought, well, you know, maybe I'll just make the soup 'cause everybody likes that the best anyway. Throw the crabs away, you know, don't tug-of-war with them. Just use them to make the broth. And so, that's what we did, although we picked some crab meat out of it and put it back into the soup.


SMITH: I kept one crab claw for each bowl. I sort of hung that over the side for a decoration and it worked real well. It was real good. People clean their bowls.


CORNISH: That's Bill Smith, the chef at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Try it messy or try it refined, you can get his recipe for Hard Crab Stew on our Found Recipes page at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.