crab & pasta gratin

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Of all the things one can love about Paris, it´s perhaps the closeness to the sea I adore most. The coast of Normandy being only one and a half hour away, a trip to the beach is a totally doable venture for a saturday afternoon. For someone like me who´s never lived anywhere near the ocean before, this continues to be truly fabulous: The sea, its sight, smell and sound, otherwise my material for holiday memories to be treasured for the rest of the year, now they´re almost right at my doorstep.

Last week, we spent a few windy hours of kite flying, building sand castles and bathing at  a pleasantly uncrowded Normandy beach. It must have been the not so perfect weather that kept people away that day – it´s still les vacances, the summer holidays, after all. Before returning home, we bought seafood in the village of Trouville, which has become sort of a habit, for the sea never fails to make everyone hungry, and it can´t get any fresher than right where it came to shore.

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At the moment, I´m falling for tourteaux, crabs. I love the coral color of the shell, and how that pretty armor bravely defies a predator (like me), who, unless properly skilled, will not be able to seize the treasure hidden within. I like the idea that indulgence requires some effort, a little task to be accomplished, which, as always, makes it even more rewarding. Admittedly, it´s more fun if you have the time, a nice glass of wine and some company.  For the following recipe, however, you can also use canned crab meat – it will still taste great.

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Crab & pasta gratin (serves 3-4):
1 leek
1 small onion
2 clove garlic
2-3 stalks celery
2 tomatoes
200 g crab meat, from  2-3 fresh cooked crabs* or canned
30 ml white wine
a handful of tarragon, from about 4 sprigs
a pinch of saffron threads
salt, pepper
a dash of piment d´Espelette or mild ground chili

25 g butter
25 g flour
350 ml milk
zest from 1 untreated lemon
salt, pepper, pinch of ground nutmeg

300 g pasta
2 handfuls of (homemade) breadcrumbs
dots of butter
parmesan cheese, grated

*2 crabs of about 800 g each will do, if they´re smaller rather count 3

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Slice white part of the leek, the celery stalks, and the garlic cloves. Chop onion. Dice fleshy parts of the tomatoes, discarding most of the kernels and the strunk. Chop tarragon leaflets.

If using live crabs, put them in the coolest part of the fridge and in freezer about 15 minutes prior to cooking. Heat a very large pot of water with 2 bay leaves, bring to a vigorous boil and cook crabs for 20 minutes. Drain water and set aside until somewhat cooled so you can crack the shell to get the meat from legs and pincers.

Heat 3 tbsp olive oil in a pan. Over medium heat, fry onion and leek until translucent and softened, but not browned. Add celery and garlic and continue to fry for 3 minutes. Add tomatoes, crab meat, tarragon, and saffron. Pour the wine and reduce for 2-3 minutes over high heat. Season lightly with salt and pepper, add a dash of chili or piment d´Espelette and set aside.

Prepare a Béchamel sauce: In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Gradually add flour, stirring with a hand whisk ( I also like to use a fork) to avoid lumps. Pour milk, still stirring until thickened, about 3 minutes (perhaps it´s necessary to lower heat during that time). Add zest from one lemon, and season with salt, pepper, and a dash of ground nutmeg.

Preheat the oven 180°C.

Cook pasta ( I used large shell shaped pasta ) in salted water, drain well and mix with the crab mixture. Transfer in an oven proof dish, pour Béchamel sauce all over and sprinkle with breadcrumbs and grated parmesan (about 2 handfuls of each). Dot with butter and bake for 25-30 minutes.

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