By: Michele Di Pietro, Italian Enclaves Historical Society
For the last couple of years, I’ve been getting together w/my sister & cousins for our big annual SPAGHETTI & CRABS feast on or right around July 4th. This year, with all the craziness, we are, unfortunately, not getting together. But, I still wanted to share this quintessential Italian-American experience with all of you.
It might sound weird to have a big outdoor pasta feast in the middle of the summer heat and humidity that does not include grilling, burgers or hot dogs. But, just call us South Jersey Italian-Americans a little wacky.
See, way back in the day, when we were all a lot younger and growing up in southern New Jersey, my Uncle Frank used to go crabbing in the bay and come back with huge heaps of Jersey crabs. My Aunt Mary used to then cook them up in large pots of tomatoes for hours — longer than what’s needed to actually cook the crabs, of course, but just the right amount of time needed for the crabs to impart their sweet, succulent flavor to the resulting gravy.
It was really ALL ABOUT THE CRAB GRAVY, in my humble opinion.
The gang would then all gather around the extra-long picnic table on Aunt Mary and Uncle Frank’s porch and we’d eat spaghetti tossed with the scrumptious Crab Gravy. Lots of it.
THEN, when the pasta eating was over, the gravy-soaked crabs would make an appearance on several large platters, along with nutcrackers, picks and small forks. This eating order was strategic — if we had eaten the crabs first, or even alongside the pasta, there was always the risk that crab shells could end up in the pasta, and nobody wanted that…. So, it was always SPAGHETTI FIRST, THEN THE CRABS.
It seemed like we were picking the crabs apart for days. Super-messy. Struggling to get to the crab meat. There was ALOT of slurping and sucking. Nothing was better.
Over the years, we kind of lost the tradition, along with many of our loved ones with whom we shared these moments.
BUT, when I found out a couple of years ago that my cousin Bernadette still had that original extra-long picnic table from the porch and it was sitting behind her garage, I thought it was time for us to revive the tradition.
We may not have Jersey crabs caught by Uncle Frank anymore, and the ‘rules of eating’ are not strictly adhered to by everyone, but we still have our wonderful memories of summers gone by and we still have CRAB GRAVY.
Click here for a slideshow of last year’s feast: https://www.instagram.com/tv/B0E1XGKBblc/?igshid=4kexb5tm30lf
CRAB GRAVY, Jersey-Style
Makes about 1 gallon
Suggested Pastas: Spaghetti, Spaghettone, Bucatini, Linguine
• 1/2 cup evoo
• 2 oz anchovies + olive oil
• 6 Tbsp garlic, minced
• 1 cup yellow onion, minced
• 1 cup basil, whole or hand-torn
• 6 ¼ lbs high quality whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand
• 1 cup water
• 1 tsp salt
• ½ tsp black pepper
• 1/4 tsp peperoncino
• raw whole crab, top shell, lungs & other nasty bits removed, fully cleaned – as many as can fit in your pot (about 15)
• handful fresh basil, whole or hand-torn
• In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the olive oil, anchovies, garlic and onions together on medium-low heat and until the garlic and onions are soft and starting to brown. (The anchovies will fully dissolve into the oil.)
• Add the basil and sauté for 2 minutes, to release its flavor, while stirring.
• Add the next 5 ingredients and bring to a light boil, then immediately reduce heat to a low simmer and submerge all of the crabs in the tomatoes. Partially cover and simmer for about 2 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
•. Fold in second amount of basil.
• Note: Crabs can be removed from the sauce and held warm, covered, in the oven, while preparing the pasta.
• Toss crab gravy with your favorite long pasta and enjoy!
By: Michele Di Pietro, IEHS Board Member
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