yesterday's post, we discussed Fortaleza's Thursday night ritual of heading out to a beach bar or casual restaurant for a crab feast. Every beach bar along Fortaleza's principal beach, Praia do Futuro, touts their own recipe as the best, but in fact, almost anywhere you go the basic recipe is the same. The recipe is so closely associated with Fortaleza and surrounding beach communities that it's sometimes called Caranguejo Cearense, meaning "Crab from Ceará" the state of which Fortaleza is the capital.
At its simplest, and most traditional, the recipe calls for cooking/steaming the crabs in a broth of rich coconut milk seasoned with garlic, onions, and tomatoes and garnished with lavish amounts of chopped cilantro. During the cooking process, the coconut milk is infused with the juices of the crabs so that when the dish is presented the aromas of the coconut milk and of briny seafood combine into a mouth-watering invitation to pick up the hammer, grab a crab and begin to smash and nosh the night away.
In Fortaleza, this recipe is made with local caranguejo-uçá crabs but can be successfully be made with whatever species of crab is available in your local market - with the possible exception of Alaska king crabs which are better suited to other treatments due to their enormous size.
RECIPE - Crab in Coconut Milk (Caranguejo ao Leite de Coco)
Serves 4 - 8 depending on size of crabs
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups (500 ml) coconut milk
1 tsp. annatto powder or oil (can substitute sweet paprika)
1 bunch cilantro, large stems removed, finely chopped
8 small crabs, thoroughly washed
In a large saucepan with a lid, heat the olive oil, then add the garlic, tomatoes and onion and fry until the onion and garlic are softened and the tomato is breaking up. Stir in the coconut milk, the annato or paprika and half of the cilantro. Cook a few more minutes or until the tomato has completely broken up. Bring the liquid to the boiling point.
Add the crabs plus just enough water to cover them. Reduce heat, cover the pan and let the crabs cook/steam for 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
Put the crabs in a deep serving bowl, pour the cooking liquid over, then sprinkle the remaining cilantro over all. Serve immediately, to be eaten by hand.