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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Beach Party

Years ago, Michael and I spent our summers on the Eastern Shores of Virginia. While Chincoteague  was our barrier island home, nearby Assateague Island National Seashore was our oceanfront  playground. The windswept dunes on Assateague gave way to vast sandy beaches that extended for miles and miles. It was beautiful.  We spent our days swimming, sunning, hiking, flying kites, and chasing ghost crabs. Surrounded by vacationing families parked on blankets tucked under frilly  umbrellas, we always felt secluded and alone.

Dusk on Assateague emptied the beaches, chasing families to their cars for dinner dates, miniature golf, or pony rides. Occasionally, we joined the frantic shuffle. There were days that we  lingered to watch the burning sun dip behind the dunes, casting shadows across the beach. Wading ankle deep through the quiet wash of a lowering tide, we held hands in public for the first time during one of those sunsets. Shielded by watery shadows, we held onto each other and to that innocent stolen moment.

It didn't matter how long we stayed on the beach. Every day ended with a short drive across the causeway to get back  to our house in Chincoteague.  After passing crabbers, clam rakers, and wild ponies, we'd stop by roadside farmstands and fish markets to buy fresh tomatoes, corn on the cob, lettuces, shrimp, clams, oysters, and Maryland blue crabs. Bountiful hauls. Once nestled into our bay-front cabin, we filled it with the joyous angst of Annie Lennox while we cooked, danced, drank, and ate with wild abandon. Paradise.

Fast forward.

Without an ocean or beach within a few hundred miles of us, Michael and I have happily managed to turn a small patch of grass at a raucous nearby public pool into our own little urban beach.  Last Saturday, we spent most of the afternoon slapping  through the icy waters of our urban oasis. When enough was enough, we piled our junk into the car and headed to the Lexington Seafood Market. It felt wonderfully familiar.

I'd called a few days earlier to ask about the availabilty of live soft shell Maryland blue crabs. They had plenty of them.  So, here's the deal. I've never embraced the notion of cleaning soft shell crabs. Ever. Period.  Cleaning  is a kind word that simply means cutting off their faces and eyes while they're still alive. Really? Nope. I'd heard that the Lexington Seafood Market cleaned soft shell crabs (upon request) at no additional emotional cost. Sold.

When we arrived at the market, the cooler was filled with rosy pink salmon, gorgeous tuna, clams, mussels, and oysters. I wanted it all.

We left with a basket of soft shell crabs, cleaned.

It felt like a beach day.

Maryland blue crabs.

Cue the music.

I marinated the crabs in buttermilk, Old Bay, and Tabasco for an hour before dredging them through 1/2 cup cornmeal mixed with 1/2 cup self rising flour.  After cranking the deep fryer to 350 degrees, I carefully dropped the crabs one by one into the hot oil. After 3 to 4 minutes, they were beautifully browned and crisp. I pulled them from the oil, drained them on paper towels, seasoned them with Old Bay, and slid them into a warm oven.

After lining a large platter with newspaper, I threw together the rest of the beach feast.

I lieu of fresh out-of-season corn, I quartered two florets of market cauliflower and blanched them for 8 minutes until they were fork tender. While the fryer was still hot, I dredged half the cauliflower the cornmeal/flour mix and fried it until it crisp and golden brown. Yep. I tossed the remaining blanched cauliflower with chive pesto and spooned it onto the platter before tumbling quartered grape tomatoes, halved yellow pear tomatoes, and roasted baby beets to the side.

I covered the newspaper-lined platter with the fried soft shell crabs, fried cauliflower florets, and sliced lemons. Small ramekins of caper dill aioli and shaved horeseradish cocktail sauce served as dippers. We ate the fry fest directly from the platter. No forks. Beach food.

The fried crabs were wonderfully messy,  squirting their sweet juices  down our chins. Intoxicating. While the cauliflower two-way added earthy crunch and herbaceous freshness, the ripe tomatoes washed over everything like edible Wet-Naps. Just before our beach party ended,  I lifted the final crab from the platter, ripped it in half, and sucked out the meat.  It was the sweetest bite of crab I had ever tasted. Ever.

 Chincoteague.  Assateague. The sand. Our house. Annie Lennox.

We were back at the beach, flying kites high into the sky
hoping to catch the clouds.

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