Last week, I accepted a dinner invitation from an ex-boyfriend to dine with two old, out-of-town friends at Bar Crudo. It would seem that I can be lured nearly anywhere by the promise of raw shellfish and wine.
It was an oddly comfortable dinner. There was none of the awkwardness that typically accompanies former couples who find themselves momentarily placed in the situation of acting as partners again, even though the partnering has been limited to the dinner table. Dining– especially from shared dishes– is an activity that is unmistakeably intimate. I decided to not focus on the obvious questions like why on earth would he invite me to dinner to meet two of his oldest friends or why I had accepted the invitation. Rather, I decided to focus on his friends and the platters of seafood that had been so carefully placed in front of us.
His friends were smart, charming, and very enthusiastic. Dismay was expressed by his friend Lindsay over the prospect of eating raw oysters– an activity in which she had never before engaged, but was willing to give them a chance, nevertheless. I ordered the smallest, sweetest ones on the menu, to make the exercise as easy as possible. She gave them a go, declared them good, and then immediately turned her attention to the one half of a Dungeness Crab carcass lying lifeless on the pile of ice that both separated and united us.
When she saw crab on the menu, her eyes went wide behind her glasses. When our waitress explained that there was only one half of a crab left in the restaurant, her eyes got even wider, as a mild panic set in. “We want that crab.” There was no raised voice or exclamation point to end those four words, but the sense of urgency with which they were imparted caused our server to move more quickly than we were to see her do for the rest of the evening.
“You don’t understand,” she told me, “We live in Texas now. You can’t get fresh crab in Texas.” Enough said. I decided not to wonder aloud if the crab was actually local.
I sat there staring at the cold, dead crab for a minute, remembering the two pounds of crab meat that lay ignored and shivering in my freezer between the ice cream and bottle of Limoncello that had been equally forgotten. I looked back at Lindsay, who was so delighted by the sight of just a fraction of what I had taken for granted at home. I felt instantly shamed, and said as much when I offered her my share of the crab. It wasn’t so much generosity as it was penance.
When I got home, I opened my freezer door to pay my respects to the crab meat. I waved at it briefly and offered it my apologies. Why had I been avoiding it? Why had I put two pounds of crab meat out of my head?
And then I understood. My expectations had been too high. When the crabs fell into my lap unexpectedly, I was excited, full of high hopes and grand plans. I wanted them to be shared in any number of fun ways with people I cared about, since one should never eat crab alone.
My crab-eating reality, however, was different from my crab-eating fantasies. I was sick with a stomach virus and working a lot. Circumstances had stacked themselves between myself and the crab. What was once alive and fresh and full of possibility wound up wrapped and thrown into a dark place to freeze over. Like so many other things.
And then, of course, I thought of the man who invited me to dinner. Our relationship was rather like the crab in my freezer– something once regarded as a source of grand plans, the sweet meat of it hard to get at through the tough shell, but thoroughly worth the effort. A seasonal item with a very short shelf life. I’d wrapped that up tight and thrown into a dark, cold place where I didn’t have to look at it along with the damned crab.
Well, I’ve taken the crab meat out of the freezer. It may no longer be fresh but it’s still there and my feeling is that what is left should be put to good use– it’s just too precious a thing to let go to waste. Something good can and should be made of it.
It does, however, take a long time for something that cold to thaw.
I’m not quite certain why I chose to make this dish. I could have made something fresher, something that showed off the crab a little more. I suppose I just wanted to try something a little different this time around. And it suits me. It suits me just fine.
Crab Rangoon is dish whose origins and ingredients are as fanciful as its name. I very much doubt the current military government of Myanmar (formerly catalogued as Burma by English Colonials) would ever allow such a recipe into the country. Unless, perhaps, they changed its name to Crab Yangon, tortured it a bit (it is, of course, boiled in oil), and then slapped a uniform on it after it had been sufficiently “retrained.”
Nope, Crab Rangoon is a uniquely American concoction– one that takes a little bit of this culture (wontons are Chinese), and a little bit of that one (A-1 Steak Sauce is English, cream cheese is a Northern European invention) and serves it up in a way that is universally acceptable (fried). Hopefully, none but the truly naive are fooled by the name.
There are two schools of thought relating to the genesis of Crab Rangoon. The first tells of its debut at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904– a year the city has never since exceeded in terms of global attention or charm. The claim is dubious– more so than the other “firsts” of the Fair, like cotton candy, peanut butter, or the hamburger. I’m willing to give them Dr. Pepper and the ice cream cone, at most.
The second, most likely story is that the dish was created in Oakland, at the original Trader Vic’s. According to their website, “Trader Vic employed what was becoming the ever-present hallmark of all his food and beverage recipes: a light touch, meant to enhance but never disguise nor overpower the fine original taste of his main ingredients.”
Given that this is a fried dish with cream cheese and, according to the original Trader Vic’s recipe, A-1 Steak Sauce and garlic salt, that’s about as colorful as one of the one-legged Vic’s legendary tall tales.
Fortunately, the dish is much easier to swallow than his stories.
This is an adapted, non-traditional recipe. I figured if Vic could come up with a “Polynesian recipe” and name it for a city nowhere near Polynesia, I could take a few liberties, too.
Makes about 30 pieces.
1/2 pound fresh crab meat, preferably, but canned crab meat may certainly be substituted.
1/3 pound cream cheese at room temperature
4 tablespoons of finely chopped red onion, more or less according to your own tastes
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon or more of chopped cilantro
a few dashes of Worcestershire Sauce
as many wonton wrappers as you can fill
1 egg yolk, well beaten with a teaspoon of water
vegetable oil, for frying
1. Combine crab meat with cream cheese, onion, garlic, salt, Worcestershire sauce, and cilantro. I find mixing the ingredients with clean hands to be immensely satisfying. Refrigerate if not using immediately.
2. Heat at frying oil to 375 F. Give yourself some room– do not stint on pot size and make sure the oil is at least three inches deep. Pre-heat oven to 200 F and line a baking sheet with paper towels for future oil drainage.
3. Working four wonton wrappers at a time, lightly moisten (sigh) the edges of the wrappers with egg yolk. Place a heaping teaspoonful of crab mixture in the center of each. To shape into blossoms, seal each corner together and gather in the middle like so:
If a little bit of crab peaks out from the top, as illustrated above, don’t worry– they won’t come apart. Pinch and twist the corners, making certain that you are making flowers and not swastikas. This is important.
4. Fry the wontons. You may do this in batches if you like or one at a time, since the frying time is fairly quick– about 45 seconds, depending upon the true heat of the oil. The dual goal is to get the wrappers to a crisp, bubbly brown and to heat the filling through. The filling does not need to be horrendously molten. Place each wonton on the towel-lined baking sheet to drain. When frying has been completed, place your newly-born Crab Rangoon into the oven to keep warm.
Best served immediately. And not piping hot, unless you actually are trying to give your guests mouth burns.
Serve with Chinese mustard, Red Pepper sauce like Sriracha, or fish sauce. Whatever you like. It’s your Crab Rangoon, make it work for you.