Vanessa Chang
(A Glutton with Brains)


a glutton with brains

Summer Food for Emotional Eaters: Spicy Crab Linguine


Certain recipes are versatile in that they adapt themselves to life. Mood dictates everything. At least for me, it influences my cravings and what I choose to tinker with in the kitchen. These recipes aren't long, sordid affairs. On the contrary, it's usually a flash of activity to clear the mind or work out the latest bout of angst.

The motions of chopping, pounding, sauteeing, stirring help; but it's also the scents working up your nose and the prospect of seeing something through to the end, at which point, it's time to feed yourself something good. The fruits of your labor also serve as the consolation prize or a friendly offering to a lover, friends and guests.

This is such a recipe.


[Above: Lovingly meshed together or beaten into submission? With a mortar and pestle, it's up to you.]

For instance, crab to my land-locked self is a bit of a luxury. When we can get them in whole, I devour them in pairs and look forward to rolling up my sleeves and making a mess that ground-sweeping cats and dogs are thankful for. So it's a bit of treat for all involved.

This recipe calls for a fair amount of it. You can add more if you're crab stores are abundant. If you're going to make this dish in the name of love (erotic or fraternal) I suggest you get meat that's already dislodged from the various crevices of the crab so that all that's involved for you is to langorously tip the meat into the mortar or the bowl. If you're going to make this dish in the name of a violent release, then by all means, grab a crab, a sharp, heavy knife and other tools with which you can smash, break and demolish a surface. Use your fingers to pick at the pockets of shell where meat is hiding, especially on the underside of the beautiful carapce. Break apart the joints. Be violent. Chances are, you might even get injured, a smashed thumb or a cut on the hand from a particularly poking bit of crab shell. All the better. People know that you mean business when you tuck into a large bowl of this stuff nursing a bandaged finger.

The mortar and pestle I like to use for this dish can also go either way. Lovingly rub the pestle along the bottom of the mortar, working the lusty garlic and chili into a gorgeous, electric red paste. Or, if you recovering from a frustrating conversation with a loved one, use gravity to pound the pestle over and over and beat these potent ingredients into submission because this at least isn't illegal.

The food processor (or better yet, a coffee ginder) can substitute, but it's a lot less gratifying.

You can make the sauce first and then wait for the pasta to boil and cook. In the meantime you can snuggle or converse with friends. What's the rush?

But then again, the rush and flurry are suited to the frenetic trains of thought in your head when you have been angered, wronged or irritated. Pasta in the water, pound the sauce, transform the crab meat into an emulsified, aromatic sauce with the steady drizzled addition of olive oil. Extra chili to match your anger, if needed. Then the tense dance of draining the pasta, saving some water and throwing everything together into a mixing bowl.

This recipe serves as a communal dish with a few close friends deemed worthy of sharing in the crab bounty. It also is good as a solitary meal nursing feelings or the stress built up in your jaw. Bite with emphasis because this is your meal.

It is at once consoling and — once the feeling (as if you're going to burst) subsides — it's also a consolation offering to any offending party. The proverbial olive branch that speaks of your physical effort and bites with a bright intensity. It's the unspoken log of your time in the kitchen and essentially how you feel at any given moment. And even though it might have been made during the heights of frustration, disappointment or anger, it speaks of resolution, as if with each forkful the dish (rather, you) is saying over and over again ...

This bite, I made it for you.


Crab Linguine with a Bite [Serves 2 or 1 really angry eater]

For me this is the quintessential comfort food. Warming from the spice, vibrant and full of slurpable noodles. Generally, I prefer blue crab or Dungeness meat versus a snow crab for this recipe, but work with what you have. I  know it says that it serves 2 (it is 1/2 pound of uncooked pasta, after all) but I have no problem (or shame) in polishing off one recipe myself. Particularly if I'm in a bad mood. 

1/2 pound (half a box) long strand pasta like linguine * salt * water for boiling * 2 to 3 cloves of garlic * 1 red chili, de-seeded * pinch of salt * 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked crab meat (blue crab, Dungeness, etc.) *  juice and zest of 1 lemon * 1 cup of extra-virgin olive oil * a handful of fresh herbs, roughly chopped (parsley, basil)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Pasta, especially strands of it, needs abundant water, so err on the side of too big a pot rather than too small. When it comes to a boil, throw in a small handful of salt. Add the pasta, give it a stir and cover until it comes to a boil again. Make sure the strands don't stick together as it cooks. Now, onto the sauce...

In a mortar and pestle add the garlic cloves and salt. Mash until the garlic pulp becomes almost gel-like, like a fragrant paste. Add the red chili and mash and grind -- pound the pestle up and down and also push it around the mortar in circular motions to get the red chilies to become as smooth in consistency as possible. 

Check the pasta -- be mindful of its texture.

Add the crab meat to the mortar and stir well to combine. Then add the lemon zest and juice. Stir with a spoon as you add the olive oil in a slow, streaming drizzle, the way you would add oil to a pesto. The point is to emulsify crab and oil.

(NOTE: If you don't have a mortar & pestle, mash the garlic, salt and chili in a food processor. If you have one that has a small working bowl or something like a coffee grinder, that works best since you're dealing with very small, albeit potent, ingredients. Once the aromatics are pureed, put it into a large mixing bowl, add the crab and proceed with the oil and the rest of the recipe.)

The pasta should be done by now (8 to 11 minutes depending on altitude). Drain the pasta into a colander and quickly place the colander over the pot or a bowl to catch some water. Turn the crab sauce into a large mixing bowl and tip the pasta and about 1/2 cup's worth of water over it. Toss violently or happily depending on your mood and to get the bits of crab worked between the strands. Add the fresh herbs and toss again. Serve immediately, eat just as quickly. Sharing optional.