Friday, February 29, 2008

The KING of Buffet Foods

I am often asked if a certain buffet includes lobster on the buffet. Lobster is a great attraction, but you are only going to find all that you care to eat lobster at very high priced buffets. There was a time a few years ago that it was possible to find it on a buffet priced under $30 per adult, but not any longer. A few higher prices Asian buffets still put lobster out with the meat in the shell cut up in ginger sauce. When you find this there is generally a swarm of dinners hovering over the empty tray waiting for it to be refilled - and then when it does come out it is emptied as quickly as it was filled. Often it is just not worth the hassle.

With the scarcity of lobster at affordable buffets, what is the "King" of buffet foods? King Crab Legs! Giant crab legs. Legs so large that if you saw the crab that was once attached, alive, and coming toward you, you would run screaming as far as you could get! But, put cut those legs off that crab, steam them, and pile them high on a buffet table and you will see people run toward them and not away!

King crab legs is the lobster-lover's buffet appeasement. I once heard someone say that the only reason people like to eat lobster is to have an excuse to dip something lavishly into melted butter and then eat it. How true! King crab legs provide the same opportunity. The meat is lobster-like, though less nutty in taste. You get the excuse to use a nutcracker to break the shells, and you get the melted butter - which is mostly what you are tasting when you eat the lobster anyway.

Many affordable priced buffets include crab legs. Some charge an additional cost to the meal. Some provide them in addition to the buffet in a limited quantity. Many that have then just include them in the price of the dinner. The crab legs are often served hot but I have been to buffets were they are also served cold on ice.

What is served will vary as well from buffet to buffet. The more expensive buffets will serve clusters of crab legs - this is several legs and the claw connected at a joint at the top. Some buffets will just serve individual legs, broken apart from the clusters. Even though you may take as many as you want, you do better with the clusters.

Crab legs are cooked by steaming them. Properly steamed the crab leg becomes reddish orange and cream color. The crabs just need to be put in a steamer, steamed, and served. In some parts of the US - particularly in the Chesapeake area of Maryland and Virginia, the crab is covered with a salty, spiced seasoning originally made by the Old Bay Company and then steamed. This gives the crab a unique flavor known to this region. It is quite good. The same spice is used on many seafoods. It is especially good on shrimp.

The King crab leg consists of three sections - the joint at the top where the leg connected to the body of the crab, the upper leg, and the lower leg. There is a joint between the upper and lower leg. If you have a cluster you will have several three legs plus a claw leg connected at the joint. In the Chesapeake region people love this stuff and put it on everything!

Eating a king crab leg has a technique all its own. I was first shown how to eat a crab leg by a waiter who took pity on watching me struggle to get the crab meat out of the shell. Just cracking open the shell at any spot along the leg just leads to frustration. Most buffets that are serving crab legs will have nut crackers available for you to use. If they are not out on the buffet table near the crab legs or on your table already, just ask. What you will not find at most buffets - even seafood buffets - are the little two prong forks used for eating shellfish. For some reason they just do not provide these -and these would be a great help when eating crab legs. Perhaps they think that they will be taken because they are so small. I don't know why but you never get one - even if you ask, they don't have them (if they even know what you are talking about). I once bought my own to bring.

So - I said that there is a technique for eating crab legs. Ok, I shall pass along the secret. First - put aside the nut cracker. You do not need it until you get to the claw. We will start with clusters - the individual legs will be obvious in a moment or so. Take the cluster and hold it at the top and pull the large claw leg down and off. You will rip it from the joint at the top of the cluster. Put it aside for now. Next, do the same for the next leg - which is the longest leg on the cluster. As you rip the leg away from the joint you will probably pull a nice lump of crab meat away with it from the joint. It is sort of a crab lolly pop now. Dip that lump of meat, still attached to the top of the leg into your butter sauce or red cocktail sauce or nothing at all as the crab meat tastes good with nothing on it at all and eat it. Hmmm! That was good and that was easy. You are now really ready for more, but you are going to have to do a little work to get the rest of the crab meat from that leg. You still do not need the nut cracker - you will just mess things up with it so leave it be. You are holding an upper leg that is connected at a joint to a lower leg with a small section in between. Gently break the joint at the top of that mid-section and pull the lower leg and the mid-section straight out from the upper leg. It will be easy to break and when you pull it away you will take two thin, stiff strands of cartilage with the lower leg out of the upper leg. Put the lower leg aside. Take the upper leg in both hands and hold it so that the shell is flat. Go to the end with the joint that just connected the lower leg. Break that joint end off with a snap. Turn the leg around and do the same thing at the top, breaking that joint end off with a snap. You should be left with the whole upper leg in the shell with the ends broken off. Sometimes the ends are difficult to break off - especially if the legs were cooked as single legs or if the crab legs have been sitting too long and the sell has become soft (and tough). Now comes the tricky part. Hold that leg flat in both hands with the orange red side facing you and with a snap break it in half length-wise. Try not to rip it. It needs to break. As you break it pull the top half of shell away and you will slide it off of the crab meat that is inside the leg. Grab a hold of that meat and gently slide it out of the bottom half of the shell. There you have it! Another succulent piece of pure crab meat!

In the lower leg you are not going to find much meat but there is some there. Snap that mid-section off and you will reveal a small triangle of crab meat. Just gently snap the lower leg in half and pull the top of the shell away. You will be rewarded with a thin strip of crab meat (sometimes).

Repeat this same process with the rest of the legs. After you have eaten the meat from the smallest leg you will still find meat in the claw leg and in the top joint. Break the joint apart. It consists of chambers and inside those chambers you will find crab meat to pick through. You may already have taken the majority of the meat out of the top when you broke the legs off, but there is always some meat left there. I have saved the claw leg for last because it requires the most work. You will need the nut cracker now. Take the leg in your hands and break the claw off the leg. It snaps right off using your fingers. Take hold of the upper jaw and break that off by pulling straight up. Now, take the nut cracker and break the claw shell. Just crack - it is not a vise. If you squeeze it apart you are going to wind up with broken shell mixed into a mush of crab. Crack the claw shell and break the shell away from the meat. There is a lump of meat inside - inside that meat is a thin cartilage. Don't eat that. Pull it away with the front of the lower jaw. The rest of the claw leg is the toughest part of the crab legs. You need to crack this with the nut cracker and pick out the meat from the shells. This part is sometimes so much trouble that with the ability to just get another crab leg or cluster I just don't bother with it.

From my years of enjoying king crab legs at buffets I have learned a few things -

1. Clusters are better than single legs because the single legs often sit in the serving tray in the water that has condensed from the steam and they become water logged which effects the taste and softens the shell to the point that it is difficult to break without ripping it. Single legs when cooked are cooked with the top cluster section cut up. The crab tends to overcook this way.

2. Crab legs are best when when they are hot because the meat will separate from the shell easier. As the crab leg cools the shell contracts and traps the meat inside. It will no longer pull easily out of the shell and will often rip in half leaving the meat inside the lower half of the shell difficult to get out (at least without a cocktail fork). As a result do not take too many crab legs or clusters at one time. They will cool off too quickly. Take two clusters or a few single legs and then go back for more hot ones! Please don't be lured by temptation as you look at the uninformed crab eaters pile clusters on their plate. Eat them hot and you will actually get to eat them and not leave the meat in the shell. Remember - it is a buffet. You can go up and get more any time that you like.

3. When crab legs are served cold on ice, expect a long struggle to get the meat out of the shell. Why? Read number 2 just above.

4. Crab leg meat added to other dishes is usually not real crab meat. There is a fish that tastes like crab and this is processed to look like king crab leg meat. If it is not in the shell, it is probably not real crab.

Crab legs are going to get your hands dirty. Your hands will be slippery with butter sauce. The hot, steamy crab juices will drip all over your hands leaving them with that "just out to sea" odor. You will often find wet naps where ever crab legs are served. If not, a quick trip to the rest room will wash the odors of your wonderful king crab feast away.

So now I am ready to go and eat some crab legs! Local Chinese buffets near me include them on the buffets so I do not have far to search. Yumm!


Robert A said...

It has been pointed out to me by one of my readers that the crab legs that are most often served at buffets are Snow crab legs rather than the more expensive variety of King crab legs. Most buffets that I have been to refer to their crab legs as king crab, but I have no doubt that what is actually served is the less expensive variety - but I have yet to hear them say that they were snow crab since KING sounds so much better. This is of no matter to the enjoyment, as the crab that you find at the buffets is what the patrons crave.

Robert A said...

This has led me to look for photos of the two varieties. King crab is REALLY UGLY - WOW! I do not think that many of us would be happy at looking at those spiny legs to eat them. Snow crab looks just like the crab legs that we are getting at the buffets - and they are much more pleasant to look at.