On the eastern shores of Crisfield, Md., about four decades ago, a few lively, jumping hard-shell crabs were dumped in the center of a circle on the city's Main Street. The crab that managed to scurry to the outer circle first garnered its happy owner a winning trophy.
That race was originally named the national hard-crab derby.
On Feb. 10, the 1986 Crab Derby was held at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim. However, unlike the live crustacean race in Maryland, there was no crawling back to the sea for the West Coast Dungeness, king and snow crabs that jumped into the cooking pot at the crab cook-off. These heroic crustaceans had to become the most delectable, most original and most presentable entry in order to win their chef the derby grand prize.
Sponsored by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and assisted by the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, the contest was held in conjunction with Sea Fare '86. Chefs from the Century Plaza, Crown Plaza, Disneyland Hotel, Los Angeles Athletic Club, Patout's Restaurant in Louisiana and the Salishan Lodge in Oregon entered their best crab dishes, each presenting a hot and a cold entry.
Steve Matson, sous chef of the Disneyland Hotel, won the overall cook-off award, which was the title of official executive chef for the Seafood USA Pavilion during an annual international food show in Paris in October. Representing the U.S. seafood industry, Matson and his colleague Carolyn Brask, chef garde manger, will fly to Paris with travel arrangements donated by the U.S. Department of Commerce and Northwest Airlines.
Although eye appeal and originality provide first impressions of a dish, taste carried Matson's Chile Relleno Crab With Papaya Salsa to winning levels. Batter-puffed Anaheim chiles filled with a creamy crab and cheese mixture are enhanced with a chutney-like fresh salsa. An unusual accompaniment, the sweet little golden cubes of papaya with a faint hint of curry and cilantro make delicious sense in Matson's tomato salsa.
The chef suggested serving the salsa at room temperature. However, contrary to that, we delighted in eating it cold with the steaming hot rellenos when the winning dishes were tested in The Times' Test Kitchen recently.
Snowballs was the name given to a snow crab-rice mixture, which won first place in the cold foods category. Scoring high points in presentation, the dish was created by cold-food chef Carolyn Brask. Nesting in beds of lettuce, the aspic-glazed balls can be served as a salad or appetizer.
Without meaning to compete with the unbeatable taste of plain steamed crab and hot melted butter, the crab derby dishes offered variety, color and artful presentation. Noted was the augmentation of fresh vegetables, fruit, pasta and interesting sauces in many of the crab dishes to stretch out the seafood. Judging the crab entries were Roland G. Henin, corporate chef for Truitt Bros. Inc.; Heinz Johannes, executive chef of the Sutter Club in Sacramento; Steve Connolly, president of Connolly Seafood in Boston; Jo Ann Miner, food editor of the Orange County Register, and this writer.
Henin, who led the judging team, gave about 50% weight to presentation when computing scores. "You really eat with your eyes first," he said. "The visual appearance already conditions your mind. . . . If the food looks awful, it's going to take away from the taste, but if it looks good, you're willing to try it."
The judges wanted to get a dish with flavors that didn't mask the natural sweet taste of the crab. Color harmony, good contrast and shape also counted, Henin said. To illustrate these factors, he pointed out some no-no's while judging: a plate with broccoli and Chinese pea pods laid side by side rather than separated; a half-moon slice positioned on an appetizer plate without conforming with the round contour of the plate, and a hot crab dish floating in grease.
"Garnishes and vegetable accompaniments should be natural and edible, not just done for looks," he said. Texture also plays a role. "Firm and soft textures should complement each other. Orientals have a good feel for this in their dishes."
Running close in points to the first-place winner were Michael Shafer's (Century Plaza) entries. Shafer's Crab Feuillette With Saffron Cream was delicately luscious, whereas his Crab Salad With Sweet Pepper and Sesame rated good scores in texture and a wonderful play of colors. In entering the salad with its Chinese-style sweet-sour dressing, Shafer explained, "I wanted to give them something different rather than the usual Louie or mayonnaise type of seafood dressing."