Crab and tomato go together like cats and random things tossed onto the floor. That is to say that crab and any form of tomato play well together, from a simple salad with freshly chopped tomatoes to this spaghetti sauce. I first had a version of this dish several years ago; my brother-in-law Mark made it with lobster while I was visiting them in Massachusetts.
It is a sauce of two parents: Italians and thrifty Yankees. Mark being both, he made the sauce using just the legs and bodies of the lobsters, parts many people throw away. But Mark knows that plenty of meat lurks within lobster bodies, and he’d patiently pick it out before making this sauce. As he did so, it occurred to me that there would be no reason why it would not work with crabs, too. After all, crabs and lobsters are cousins.
So when I returned home to California all those years ago, the first time I brought back some crabs from Bodega Bay I made my own rendition of Mark’s lobster sauce. I’ve made it many times since then, and a version of it appears in my book.
But as with any recipe you do over and over and over again, I’ve tinkered with the original, and, I think, have managed to streamline the recipe even more. In the old version, I had trouble getting all the shell out of the sauce. I’ve fixed that here.
There is another piece to this story. About a month ago, the Tabasco hot sauce company invited me and a few other food writers down to see their operation on Avery Island. It would be my first-ever press junket. Now some of you know I was a political reporter for nearly 20 years before I began doing this, and that experience taught me to cast the hairy eyeball on such things. I can’t tell you how many press trips I’ve been invited to since I started Hunter Angler Gardener Cook in 2007, but I’ve turned them all down.
Until Tabasco came calling. Well hell, I thought. I actually use their hot sauce on a weekly basis anyway. It is my go-to pepper sauce, although I am still a fan of others, like Cholula and that cool Portuguese piri-piri sauce. I even make my own hot sauce. But Tabasco is different. It is aged in oak barrels for three years before they let it loose on the world. I genuinely wanted to see how they did it.
Part of the deal with this trip was that I create some recipes that use Tabasco. Now if this request came from Hormel or Kraft or someone, it would have been a deal-breaker. I don’t work with processed foods. Ever. But like I said, I already use Tabasco all the time anyway, so this bargain was a no brainer for me. The original version of this crab sauce called for a few dashes of Tabasco, and when it came time to revise this recipe it occurred to me that Tabasco has a garlicky hot sauce that fits the dish even better.
This sauce is insanely good. Good in the way only years of tinkering can do. Sharp, sweet, garlicky, just a little spicy with a strong hit of anise flavor from fennel and ouzo. It may look like just a regular tomato sauce with bits of crab in it, but it’s not. I assure you.
spaghetti with crab sauce
This recipe is a two-step process: Making the sauce base and then the sauce itself. You can make the base a day ahead if you’d like. Any crab will do here, but I use a combination of red crabs, rock crabs and Dungeness crabs.
The only tricky ingredient here is ouzo, which is a Greek anise-flavored liquor. Most liquor stores have it, but you can sub in sambuca, raki, Pastis, Pernod or any other anise-flavored liqueur. Still can’t find it? Go with brandy; that’s what my brother-in-law does.
Once you make this sauce, it will last up to 3 days in the fridge before it starts to get funky.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup chopped onion
- Shells from 2-3 Dungeness crabs, or 4-6 large rock crabs, or 8-10 blue claw crabs
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- Tops from 1 fennel bulb, chopped
- 3-4 bay leaves
- 1/2 cup ouzo
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 1/2 cup chopped fennel bulb
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
- 1/4 cup ouzo
- A 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
- 2 cups of the crab sauce base
- Tabasco garlic-pepper sauce (or other hot sauce) to taste
- 1 cup cooked crabmeat
- 1-2 pounds dried spaghetti
- Chives, green onions or parsley to garnish
- To make the sauce base, put the onions and olive oil in a stockpot and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until the onions are soft and translucent, about 6-8 minutes. Add the crab shells and the garlic and stir to combine. Use a potato masher to smash the crab shells into small pieces. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes.
- Add the bay leaves, the tops from the fennel bulb, ouzo and a healthy pinch of salt. Add enough water to cover everything by 1 inch. Bring to a simmer and cook for 1 hour. Turn off the heat and pick out as much of the solids as possible, making sure you save the liquid. Strain the liquid through a paper towel set in a colander. Reserve.
- To finish the sauce, heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or other large, wide pot over medium-high heat. Saute the onions and chopped fennel until they are soft and translucent, about 6-8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute.
- Mix in the tomato paste and cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring often, until it darkens and turns the color of brick. Add the ouzo, the tomatoes and 2 cups of the crab sauce base. Stir well and bring to a simmer. Taste for salt and add the Tabasco to taste. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time.
- Boil your pasta. Once the pasta is ready, add the crabmeat to the sauce and stir gently. Mix the pasta with a little of the sauce, then portion it out. Top with more sauce, and garnish with chives or parsley.