Peekytoe Crab Salad

Finally got around to reading the spring issue of Florida Table Magazine, a relatively new magazine whose editor, Marie Speed, is a longtime friend. And there on page 21 was a recipe for Peekytoe Crab Salad. Simply smashing photo too. The recipe was actually fr0m Christopher Eagle who is the chef de cuisine at Cielo at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. I'm somewhat familiar with peekytoe crab and have seen it on menus in my travels, but I never ordered it for some odd reason. Wish I had- now that it is so much in the culinary news.

Peekytoe crabs are sort of a by-product of lobster fishing. Most Maine lobstermen let the little crabs go instead of collecting them. With so many lobsters, worth so much more money, most lobstermen don't want to bother with crabs. However, as is often the case, one man's trash is another man's treasure.

Some background on this engaging name of peekytoe: it comes from "picked toe" -- '"picked'' (rhyming with picket) -- because the crab leg has a very sharp point that turns inward. ''Picked" is Maine slang for pointed. The Maine accent no doubt contributed to the resulting name of "peekytoe”. What really makes peekytoe crabs better than other crabs, aside from flavor, is the care with which they are handled, cooked and picked -- essential work, because the crabs are too fragile to be shipped live.

These little crabs- weighing less than a pound- which were once discarded, have become the culinary darlings of four-star chefs from coast to coast. Crab picking in Maine has always been a cottage industry. For generations, lobstermen brought home the crustaceans that were caught in their traps and gave them to their wives or sisters to cook, pick, and pack for sale. The meat was sold for a song to locals and restaurateurs. In 1998 federal food safety regulations began requiring the home-based crab "shops" to move into separate premises with double bay sinks and to meet other requirements. Many pickers decided to pack it in, but there are still a few dozen left who have figured out how to pick on a small scale and still pass inspection. And this fascinated me: chefs even have their favorite pickers. Ingrid Bengis, whose small seafood company is located in Stonington at the southern tip of Deer Island in the Penobscot Bay, is considered one of the best. It appears that getting all the little pieces of shell picked out of the crabmeat is not an easy matter.

But here’s the thing: no matter what, you and I cannot go to a seafood market and buy a container of peekytoe crab under that name. You can buy Maine crab (if you’re lucky enough to find it), but it could be red or Jonah crab as easily as peekytoe, or a combination of all three. The only way to buy peekytoe crab, outside of ordering it in a restaurant, is from one of the many crab pickers along the Maine coast. OK, I get it. I’m not going to be using peekytoe crab in this salad. And just to prove it, I went to three grocery stores and two fish mongers in my area: not one had even heard of peekytoe crabs!

So why would Florida Table print a recipe we home cooks (except those who live in Maine) can’t make? Well, first of all- peekytoe crab is the new “in” crab for our finest chefs and so this recipe would be considered “edgy”, a must for an upbeat magazine- which this is. Then again, it’s a win-win situation for the chef: he’s doing the magazine a favor by giving them the recipe and getting the restaurant’s name in the magazine. Unfortunately, we who read the magazine don’t have a prayer of finding the main ingredient.

And then I read someplace you can substitute Maine crab, stone crab or Dungeness crab for peekytoe. Fresh, mind you, not pasteurized. (The only comment I got from one fish monger regarding Dungeness was that it dirtied up their tanks too much.) Unfortunately, now when I see peekytoe on a menu I’m going to wonder exactly what I’m eating; just because the name peekytoe is slapped on it does that mean it IS peekytoe? Exactly? And who would know? Certainly not me. My palate isn’t discriminating enough to tell the difference unless various crabs were lined up on a plate for tasting. Maybe if we lived in Maine…..

Why is peekytoe so special? It is supposedly more delicate and sweeter than other crabs. The meat is white with tinges of pink. Sounds wonderful. And next time I see it on a menu- no matter what the dish- I am going to order it. Because it is so delicate I would imagine it is mostly used in salads where it will shine through and not be overcome by other flavors. I am going to be watching for it on all the local menus from now on.

Now one thing we do have in Florida is stone crabs. So I went ahead and made this picture-perfect salad and so can you; just substitute the best fresh crab you have available in your fish market. I used Florida’s heavenly stone crabs- a very classy, if pricey, alternative if you ask me. Delicate too. And pink. Sort of.

Peekytoe Crab Salad
(Adapted from Florida Table Magazine, Spring issue.)

4 ounces peekytoe crabmeat
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon mayonnaise
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 fingerling potatoes, boiled, peeled and diced
1 teaspoon fresh chervil, chopped
1 teaspoon chives, chopped
1 tablespoon shallots, finely diced
1/8 teaspoon cumin
Salt to taste
1 avocado, sliced
1 teaspoon tomato, diced
1 tablespoon micro greens

Pick clean crab meat, making sure there are no shells.
Mix crab, olive oil, mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, potatoes, chervil, chives, shallots and salt together in a bowl. Refrigerate while fixing the avocados and dressing.

Mix the last tablespoon of lemon juice with cumin, remaining tablespoon of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss the avocado in a small bowl with this dressing. Place avocado on plate and top with crab. Garnish with tomato and micro greens. Serve immediately. Serves 1.

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