My grandparents bring a certain magic with them wherever they go. It’s the kind of magic that comes with 85 years of living, an impeccable memory, and so many stories to tell that they jump at you before they can even walk through the door. One minute you’re talking about traffic on the Verrazano bridge, the next they’re telling you about the year it was completed, how they were still living uptown across the street from the Knickerbocker Brewery, my grandmother practicing English with her upstairs neighbor so she could help my dad with his homework. Lately, I just want to sit with them and soak up everything. They have so much in them—stories, skills, recipes, everything—that I often panic at the thought of letting that all slip away, undocumented and one day gone. And I don’t care how many times they tell the same story, because a new detail is revealed with each telling.
Such is the case with pasta and crabs. We’ve heard my grandmother tell a story about bringing blue crabs home one night and leaving them in the kitchen to cook the next day. The story goes that they woke up the next morning, and the crabs were all over the kitchen, climbing the walls, on top of the refrigerator, in the bathroom. My grandfather spent the morning chasing them down with gloves and tongs, everyone laughing and screaming and forgetting what they were going to do with them in the first place.
That’s the most we’d heard of the crab story, until last weekend. By an unexpected twist of fate, our whole family was in NJ for the day. Husband Joe (Joe S.) and Brother Joe (Joe G.) were scheming a crab bisque recipe first thing Sunday morning when our grandparents appeared on the front porch for a surprise visit.
After much excitement and cuddling between Nonna and my niece Sofia (they’re overwhelmed with joy at being great-grandparents), Joe S. and Joe G. unveiled the crab bisque plans. Never mind the fact that they don’t know what a bisque is. Talk of crab immediately evoked the “runaway crabs in the kitchen” story. Only this time, we got two new, crucial details:
When Nonno finally pulled the crabs off the walls, they made a pasta sauce with them.
They got the crabs from the guy who drove around Brooklyn selling local seafood from a truck. Like the ice cream man, only with crabs, clams, oysters, and other Godly creations. Can you imagine? Talk about a Brooklyn that is no more…
With the story in full force, we had to make the crab pasta sauce. Bisque Schmisque. We had Nonna right here, eager to revive a dish she hadn’t made in decades. Bisque who? And what perfect timing—we got to use our homemade sauce! Here’s the recipe, straight from Nonna, with a little help from the Joes. I stood back and discussed the philosophy of life with Sofia, who, at three months old, is quite wise. I did break for photo ops, of course.
Spaghetti with Crab Tomato Sauce
1 dozen blue crabs
¼ cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large white onion, sliced into moons
salt and pepper to taste
1 32-ounce jar tomato puree
dried or fresh oregano to taste
dried or fresh basil to taste
1 pound spaghetti
First, wash the crabs. If they’re still alive and kicking, submerge them in ice water. The ice will sedate them so you can handle them without losing a finger. Leave the crabs whole and scrub off any visible dirt. A few rounds of rinsing will get rid of any hidden gunk.
While the crabs are soaking, prepare your sauce.Coat the bottom of a very large pot (big enough to hold the crabs) with olive oil. Add chopped garlic and sliced onions. Season with salt and pepper. When the onions begin to soften, stir in the tomato puree. Season with oregano, basil and more salt and pepper to taste. Leave everything to simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the flavors start to combine.
Once the crabs are calm and clean, plop them into the sauce. Be careful! Use tongs to avoid getting splashed with boiling hot sauce. At this point, Joe G. covered the pot and shook it to coat the crabs in sauce. You can do that, or just mix them with a giant wooden spoon.
Now just leave the pot to boil so the crab flavor blends with the sauce, about 30 minutes, on low to medium heat. When the sauce is about done, cook the spaghetti. I’ll spare you these steps if you already know how. If you’re still working on your pasta-cooking skills, try these great instructions. Remove the crabs from the pot and toss the spaghetti with half of the sauce. Use the remaining sauce to top each plate of pasta before serving. We ate the crabs separately, which was fun for about five minutes. In truth, eating whole crabs covered in tomato sauce is messy and annoying. I’m sure kids would love the opportunity to coat themselves in sauce, but we boring adults gave up pretty quickly. The rest of the dish was worth every trouble, though. Especially when eaten in a houseful of family.