When I was a kid growing up in South Philly, there were certain foods that we would always look forward to and enjoy during the summer. There was Pop’s Water Ice, with real chunks of fruit floating in a refreshing cup of icy goodness. There was the pretzel man who would push his wagon up and down the streets, ringing his bell and yelling “soft pretzels!!!” and he would slather the mustard on your pretzel with a paint brush. There was the Mr. Softee ice cream truck that knew to come around the neighborhood blaring it’s famous jingle just as you were finishing up dinner. And then there was my favorite summertime meal – spaghetti and crabs. Just the smell of crab gravy (spaghetti sauce cooked with crabs instead of meatballs for you non South Philly readers) brings me back to when I was a kid – sitting in my parents’ living room on a hot Sunday afternoon, listening to Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn call a Phillies game on the tv or radio, anxiously waiting to crack a claw or two. These days, I have to settle for the neighborhood Rita’s Water Ice (good, but not Pop’s), there is no more neighborhood pretzel man, and Mr. Softee….well, he now comes around just as we’re starting to eat dinner (damn that jingle!!!). But I still make it a tradition to have at least one Sunday Crabs and Macaroni dinner each summer.
What’s so unique and special about this dish is the amazing flavor that comes together when you cook the crabs in the sauce. Words can’t describe how good it tastes and smells. The sauce also adds an incredible tenderness to the crab meat. Most people I know would call it Spaghetti and Crabs. When my mom would make crab gravy, she would serve it with thin spaghetti and we would dig into the crabs afterwards. They were the reward for eating your entire plate of pasta. She would also use blue crabs that my Grandfather would either catch or buy fresh and send over to our house. I decided on a slightly different approach when I started making my own crab gravy. First, I prefer using either ziti or rigatoni. That’s why I went with the more generic “Crabs and Macaroni,” but feel free to use whatever pasta you like. Second, I like to add a can of crab meat to the sauce for extra flavor*. I also like the fact that you get some meat into the mix with your pasta. Why wait until the end to enjoy the taste? Third, while it’s more expensive, I prefer to use pre-cooked snow crabs that you can find at the seafood section of the supermarket. I always felt that the smaller blue crabs involved a lot of effort with little payoff. The snow crab legs, however, have plenty of meat with much easier access. Feel free to use whatever choice of crab you like best!
Now, if you decide to make this meal (and I encourage you to do so), there are a few things that you should be forewarned about.
1. This is a very messy meal. All shame goes out the window. Shells will be flying and sauce will be splashed. There’s no way around it. With that in mind…
2. Keep plenty of napkins on hand. You can even go rib-shack style and just keep an entire roll of paper towels at the table.
3. Do not wear a white shirt. You will walk away from the table looking like you were involved in a crime scene.
4. No matter how much you wash them, your hands will smell like crabs for the rest of the day. It’s a special meal…savor the funk.
* If you decide to use a can of crab meat, be sure to buy the large 16-oz cans of crab meat that are located in the seafood section of your supermarket. While they can be a bit pricey at times, they are packed with 100% crab meat. The smaller cans that are found near the cans of tuna are packed with about 1/3 water, so you are getting your money’s worth with the larger cans.
Now get crackin’!
1 tblspn olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 29-oz can tomato sauce
1 28-oz can crushed or pureed tomatoes (depending on your preference), plus 1-1/2 cans of water
1 6-oz can tomato paste
2 tblspn sugar
1 tblspn Italian Seasoning
1/2 tspn Old Bay Seasoning
1 1-lb can of crab meat
Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat until hot, but not smoking. Add garlic, heat for 30 seconds. Add tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste and water; stir. Add sugar, Italian Seasoning, and Old Bay; stir. Bring to boil, the lower heat to medium-low. Add can of crab meat and crabs; stir and partially cover. Stir occasionally. Cook on medium-low for 1-1/2 to 2 hours.