With the arrival of Lent, La Cuaresma, Mexican cooks’ focus turns towards fish and vegetable dishes. All along the coasts, the abundant seafood takes pride of place at the table and the state of Veracruz, with its fertile land and lengthy Gulf seaboard, rivers, lakes and lagoons, has numerous fishy treats to offer. Jaiba Gratinada, or gratin of crab, is a decidedly post-Columbian creation, blending the local crustacean and indigenous chillies with the creamy dairy produce introduced by the Spaniards during the colonial era – and while this is a very popular Lenten dish or platillo cuaresmeño, its savouriness and richness has nothing to do with abstinence!
Needless to say, the crab needs to be utterly fresh, and unless you are a dab hand at cooking live crabs and picking the meat out of the shell, you are better off buying ready cooked crab meat from a reliable fishmonger. Two whole dressed crabs will provide the required quantity for this recipe, and a mixture of white and brown meat yields the best results – the brown meat has a fuller flavour and texture.
Grilled red bell peppers work very well in this gratin, but I have to admit that a Veracruzana cook would use the dark green poblano chillies so do substitute them if they are available and you like the idea.
Gratin of Crab – Jaiba Gratinada
For the gratin:-
250 g/9 oz red bell peppers
700 g/1 1/2 lb tomatoes, halved
300 g/11 oz potatoes, peeled and diced
30 ml/2 tbsp olive oil
225 g/8 oz onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
125 g/4 1/2 oz carrots, scrubbed and diced
30 g/2 oz green chillies, as mild or as hot as you like, deseeded and sliced
2.5 ml/1/2 tsp chipotle chilli powder or purée or to taste
500 g/19 oz cooked crab meat, ideally a mixture of white and brown
75 g/3 oz Mexican queso fresco or Feta cheese
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 x 1.2 litre/2 pint ovenproof gratin dish, well buttered
For the sauce:-
75 g/3 oz unsalted butter
60 g/2 1/2 oz plain flour
600 ml/1 pint/2 1/2 cups full cream milk
150 g/6 oz mature Cheddar-style cheese, grated
5 ml/1 tsp Dijon mustard
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the grill to high. Line the grill pan with kitchen foil and arrange the peppers on it. Grill 10 cm/4 in from the heat, turning as necessary, until they are soft and charred all over. Set aside to cool slightly before slipping off the skins, discarding the stem and seeds and dicing the flesh.
While the peppers are cooling, line the grill pan with a fresh piece of kitchen foil and arrange the tomatoes, cut side up, on it. Grill 10 cm/4 in from the heat for about 20 minutes, until lightly charred. Transfer the tomatoes and any juices to a food processor, add some seasoning and blend to a fairly smooth purée.
Steam the potatoes until just tender.
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and add the onions, garlic, carrots and green chillies. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the vegetables have softened and the onions have turned a light gold. Stir in the potatoes and some seasoning and cook for a further five minutes. Sprinkle in the chipotle and cook for two minutes.
Add the peppers, tomato purée and crab meat and stir gently together. Check and adjust the seasoning. Set aside while you make the sauce.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and sprinkle in the flour. Cook gently until the mixture resembles wet sand. Stir in the milk a few tablespoons at a time until it is all incorporated and bring to the boil. Stir in the mustard, some salt and pepper, and half the grated cheese. Check the seasoning.
Scrape the crab into the gratin dish and crumble the queso fresco or feta cheese over it. Spoon the cheese sauce all over the top. Sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese.
Preheat the oven to 200oC/400oF/gas 6/fan oven 180oC and bake the gratin until the top is golden and the sauce is bubbling around the edges, about 30 minutes.
Chilli and Chocolate Stars of the Mexican Cocina by Isabel Hood is available from Amazon.co.uk
Just The Two of Us Entertaining Each Other by Isabel Hood is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk