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Hard Crab Stew, No Longer Hard (Or Messy)

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Some of the greatest summer food experiences take you outside. Whether it's shucking corn and barbecuing or spitting watermelon seeds, an outdoor setting can add a whole new dimension to food.

Bill Smith, chef at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C., says some of his favorite summer food memories took place at picnic tables over messy bowls of his grandmother's crab stew. He shared a recipe for All Things Considered's Found Recipes series.

Smith grew up off the coast of North Carolina, fishing and pulling in blue crabs in the summer after they'd developed hard shells after molting.

"[Crab stew was] one of the big treats every summer," he says. "It was always a huge deal — everybody loved it."

But it's a very messy dish. The crabs are still in their shells so even though it's like soup, Smith says you have to use your hands to pick out the meat as you go.

"A lot of times, because the crabs are such a mess and they're so much trouble, you'd take like one crab to be polite, but what you really want was just a bowl of the soup," he says.

That miracle stew broth is just water, bay leaves, thyme, red pepper flakes, potatoes and onion, thickened with a slurry of cornmeal and water at the last minute. But Smith says the best part is the slice of white bread that's stuck to the bottom of the bowl.

"You pour the soup and the crabs over the top of that, and when you get all done, you have that at the bottom," he says.

Even though the stew is one of Smith's favorite things from growing up, he never put it on the menu at Crook's Corner because it was too messy.

"So I just thought, well, you know, maybe I'll just make the soup because everybody likes that the best anyway — throw the crabs away," he says.

He still used the crabs and some of the meat to make the soup and kept a crab claw hung over the side. It was a success. "People cleaned their bowls," he says.

Recipe: Crab Stew

Bill Smith says claw crackers would be handy for eating this dish. "We used to get yelled at for cracking the claws with our teeth," he says. In the pictured version, fried biscuit dough croutons replace the white bread listed in the recipe.

Serves a crowd

1/2 pound sidemeat or fatback

2 medium onions, peeled and cut into large dice

2 dozen hard crabs, cleaned and halved

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

4 bay leaves

1 teaspoon thyme

6 baking-sized potatoes, peeled and cut into eighths

3/4 cups all-purpose corn meal, stirred into two cups of cold water

Salt and pepper to taste

Sliced white bread

Render the sidemeat in a large stock pot. Do this slowly, as it has a low smoking point and you want to extract as much fat as possible before it gets too brown. It will resemble crisp bacon in color when ready. Add the onions and saute until soft but not brown. Add the crabs and cover with cold water. Add the red pepper, bay and thyme. Bring to a boil, then turn back to a simmer. Cook for half an hour, and then add the potatoes. Cook until they are well done, 15 to 20 minutes more. Turn up the heat a little (but you don't want a hard boil) and stir in the cornmeal and water. This will be a little difficult because of the crabs, but you need to mix the slurry in thoroughly. Bring the stew back to a simmer until it begins to thicken. Add salt and pepper to taste.

To serve, put a slice or two of bread in the bottom of large soup bowls and ladle the stew, crabs and all, on top.

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