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Spaghetti and Crabs is a classic Italian-American recipe, especially known in the Philadelphia/New Jersey/New York areas. It’s made and enjoyed mostly in the summer months with local blue crabs slowly simmered in tomato sauce. But, there’s also a huge contingency that enjoys this dish on Christmas Eve, as part of the Feast of the Seven Fishes tradition. Whenever it’s made, I can say in all seriousness, there is nothing out there like the flavor of this crab gravy. Read on for more!
You may not know this, but crabs and tomato go together like, well, tomato and basil, chicken cutlets and broccoli rabe, and sausage and peppers. That is to say, they join forces and make the end result oh so much more that the sum of its parts.
Spaghetti and Crabs just might be my favorite pasta dish. If you know anything about me, then you know that is saying something big. Because, you see, in addition to the unbelievable flavor that the crabs impart into the cauldron of tomato sauce over the hours of cooking, this dish is very nostalgic for me, and brings up such amazing childhood family and food memories.
A Little Spaghetti and Crabs Family History . . .
A few years back, my cousins, sister and I revived a delicious annual family tradition that had been dormant for a really long time–that of Spaghetti and Crabs for the 4th of July weekend. It might sound weird to have a big outdoor feast in the middle of a intense heat that does not include grilling, burgers or hot dogs. But, just call us South Jersey Italian-Americans a little wacky. See, way back in the day, when we were all a lot younger and growing up jersey, my Uncle Frank used to go crabbing in the bay and come back with huge heaps of Jersey crabs. Aunt Mary used to then cook them up in a large pot of tomatoes for hours–longer than what’s needed to actually cook the crabs, of course, but just the right amount of time needed for the crabs to impart their sweet, succulent flavor to the resulting gravy. It was really ALL ABOUT THE CRAB GRAVY.
The gang would then all gather around the extra-long picnic table on Aunt Mary and Uncle Frank’s porch and we’d eat spaghetti tossed with the scrumptious crab gravy. Then, when the pasta eating was over, the gravy-soaked crabs would make an appearance on several large platters, along with nutcrackers, picks and small forks. This eating order was strategic–if we had eaten the crabs first, or even alongside the pasta, there was always the risk that crab shells could end up in the pasta, and nobody wanted that. It seemed like we were picking the crabs apart for days. Super-messy. Struggling to get to the crab meat. There was ALOT of slurping and sucking. Nothing was better.
Over the years, we kind of lost the tradition, along with many of our loved ones that we always shared these moments with. But, when I found out that my cousin Bernadette still had that original picnic table from Aunt Mary’s porch behind her garage, I decided it was time for us to revive the tradition. We may not have Jersey crabs caught by Uncle Frank anymore, but we still have our wonderful memories of July 4ths gone by and we still have CRAB GRAVY.
So, What’s the Big Deal?
I hate to write this, but Spaghetti and Crabs really is one of those dishes that you have to experience in order to understand its fabulousness. The crabs impart an intense flavor and sweetness to the sauce that just cannot be matched once they are simmered in it for just the right amount of time. Of course, the “right amount of time” is a highly contested topic amongst Italian Americans.
For me, the perfect amount of time is somewhere around two and a half hours. Cooking crab gravy is akin to braising tough cuts of meat that are tough-tough-tough until they finally turn fork-tender. My crab gravy is similar. I start sampling after one hour or so, and when it finally has that distinct crab flavor, it is done.
At that point, I remove the crabs from the sauce and hold them warm in a low temperature oven while the sauce is married with the spaghetti. Some might argue that the crab meat inside the shells will be super mushy after cooking the crabs for so long. There are two solutions to this. Stir some lump crab meat into the sauce once the whole crabs have been removed. And/or, make some whole crabs on the side that have been cooked separately (and for less time). My family and I always have done the latter. With such a succulent sauce, we don’t need any additional crab chunks in the gravy. We enjoy its flavor tossed with the pasta, then roll up our sleeves and dive into the sauce-covered crabs, and settle in. Pass the napkins, please!
To make this Spaghetti and Crabs, we will be using the following ingredients:
- Crabs: Blue crabs are definitely the crab of choice for this dish! When not in season, check around to see if you can find them frozen. The key is that the crabs should be raw and 100% cleaned before adding them to the pot. Unless you are experienced or feeling adventurous, ask your fishmonger to clean the crabs and to remove all the nasty bits so that you don’t have to do it.
- Tomatoes: Use a high-quality canned tomato for this recipe. I almost always suggest using whole tomatoes as they are less processed. Then, you can hand-crush them yourself, or use a potato masher if the thought of squishing tomatoes in your hands is not appealing to you. (I actually enjoy doing it.)
- Pasta: Any long pasta is great in this dish. The traditional shape is spaghetti, but linguine, bucatini, spaghettone and spaghetti alla chitarra all work beautifully.
- Anchovies: The anchovies are a more recent addition to this dish. We didn’t use them in this recipe while growing up, but I love the umami flavor and saltiness that they add to the crab gravy. They are meant to just enhance the overall flavor of the sauce in a subtle way and to not overpower it. You can omit them, if desired.
- Onions and Garlic: No explanation necessary! Onions and garlic are important flavor builders in general and also here. In this recipe, I think they should be finely chopped and not very visible. Remember, this sauce is all about that succulent crab flavor and all other ingredients are just supporting characters! Feel free to add more or use less onions and garlic based on your personal preference.
- Fresh Basil: While I don’t generally use basil in seafood-based sauces, the seasonal nature of this recipe just seems to call for it. We traditionally ate this dish in the heat of the summer, when fresh, home-grown basil was abundant. And, so, it just seemed natural to add it to the pot. You can leave it out, but I don’t suggest it. It works so well with the flavors in this sauce. You can, however, add some flat-leaf parsley, if desired.
A complete and detailed list of ingredients with amounts and instructions is included in the recipe below.
Step-By-Step, Pro-Tips included!
Here are the main steps for how to make this Spaghetti and Crabs:
- Prep and measure all ingredients.
- PRO-TIP: Ask your fishmonger to clean the crabs for you–worth the additional cost!
- Make the crab gravy: Cook onions, garlic, anchovies and crushed red pepper in some olive oil until they are soft, then add the basil and tomatoes. Once the tomato mixture is at a simmer, carefully add all the crabs and ensure they are submerged in the tomato mixture.
- PRO-TIP: The sauce recipe below yields roughly one gallon, which is clearly meant for a large crowd or for several meals. (One gallon crab gravy is enough for about 4 to 5 pounds of pasta.) But, this sauce freezes beautifully! I suggest portioning any leftovers in two cup increments and freezing them in an airtight freezer bag or container for up to three months.
- Once the crabs are submerged in the pot, partially cover it and simmer for about 2½ hours, stirring regularly. Remove the crabs from the sauce at this point and hold them warm, covered, in a 200°F oven, while preparing the pasta. Fold in the remaining basil, then place about three cups or so of the crab gravy in a large skillet over low heat.
- Get the pasta water ready.
- PRO-TIP: Don’t skimp on the water! Use a large (7–8 quart) pot with 6 quarts water for 1 pound of pasta. And, bring the water to a boil before adding the salt. The water will boil a little more strongly for a second when you do so, and this will ensure that the salt is dissolved immediately. If you add the salt to the pot when the water is cold, it may just deposit on the bottom of the pot. Use 1 1/2–2 Tbsp salt.
- Cook the pasta most of the way (until about 2 minutes less than the package directions), then add it to the skillet with some pasta water to finish cooking in the sauce.
- Add more sauce if desired, then transfer it to a serving bowl and serve immediately.
The Rest of the Spaghetti and Crabs Feast
Spaghetti and Crabs is traditionally served as follows: the delicious, crab-infused sauce is tossed generously with the pasta and eaten first. Then, a large platter of warm crabs emerges on the table, at which time the nutcrackers and extra napkins come out and everybody rolls up their sleeves. This second part goes on for some time without schedule or agenda.
In general, lots of extra crabs are cooked (both with and without sauce) apart from the crab gravy. It is a crab FEAST, after all. The order of eating is definitely strategic. Eat the pasta first, and the crabs second. This is so that there is no danger of any crab shell contaminating the pasta.
Make no mistake, the event is all about the Spaghetti and Crabs. Having said this, it is generally a once a year (if that) affair. And so, as feasts go, there are always lots of other dishes present. Here are some ideas to round out your next Spaghetti and Crabs feast:
- Insalata caprese: Fresh summer tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil
- Salumi and cheese, olives, roasted peppers
- Fried peppers, sweet and hot
- Zucchini fritters
- Really great, crusty bread
- Sautéed zucchini
- Tomato cucumber salad
- String bean salad
- Pasta Accompaniments:
- Olio Santo (Spicy Pepper Oil)
- Toasted Breadcrumbs
- Dessert: ALL the desserts!
- Rainbow cookies
- Italian water ice and/or gelat
- Fruit salad
- Strawberry cheesecake or shortcake
Kitchen Tools & Cookware for Spaghetti and Crabs
To make this Spaghetti and Crabs recipe, you will need the following:
- Cutting board with non-slip mat underneath (I use shelf liner)
- Sharp chef’s knife
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Multiple bowls to hold prep
- Garlic press
- Dutch oven
- Large (6–8 qt) pot for cooking pasta
- Colander, large mesh strainer or spider for scooping out or draining pasta
- Wooden or silicon spoons, tongs
- sauté pan or skillet
- Large serving bowl or platter and serving utensils
More Great Recipes to Try
If you’ve tried this recipe or any other recipe on the blog, please let me know how it went in the comments below — I love hearing from you!
Spaghetti and Crabs
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
- 6 Tbsp garlic, finely chopped
- 2 ounces anchovies + their oil
- 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
- 2 large handfuls basil, whole or hand-torn, divided
- 4 (28 ounce) cans high-quality whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand
- 1 cup water
- 1 tsp salt + more for pasta water
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- about 15 raw whole blue crabs, top shell, lungs & other nasty bits removed, fully cleaned, halved (ask your fishmonger to do this) – as many as can fit in your pot (about 15)
- 1 pound spaghetti or other long pasta (See NOTE.)
- See NOTE below about the yield of the sauce. This recipes makes about 1 gallon of crab gravy. Reduce the portions as desired, but you will be very happy that you have leftovers in the freezer. Trust me!
- Make the crab gravy: In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil, onions, garlic, anchovies and crushed red pepper together over medium-low heat and cook until the onions and garlic are soft and starting to brown. At this point, the anchovies will have fully dissolved into the oil.
- Add half the basil and sauté for about two minutes, to release its flavor, while stirring.
- Add the tomatoes, water, salt and black pepper and bring mixture to a light boil, then immediately reduce the heat to a low simmer and submerge all of the crabs in the tomatoes.
- Partially cover the pot and simmer for about 2½ hours, stirring regularly. Remove the crabs from the sauce at this point and hold them warm, covered, in a 200°F oven, while preparing the pasta. (See NOTE below about the amount of sauce that this recipe yields). Taste and adjust seasoning of the sauce, if necessary, and fold in the remaining basil.
- Heat a large pot of water to boiling to cook the pasta. In the meantime, place about three cups or so of the crab gravy in a large skillet over low heat.
- Cook pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until two minutes less than al dente. At this point, transfer the pasta and about ½ cup pasta water to the skillet with the sauce. Finish cooking the pasta in the delicious sauce so that it will soak up all of those delicious flavors! Add more pasta water and sauce as desired or needed.
- Transfer the pasta to a serving bowl and enjoy! Serve the crabs on the side or after enjoying the pasta. Buon Appetito!
- The sauce recipe yields roughly 1 gallon, which is clearly meant for a large crowd or for several meals. (One gallon crab gravy is enough for about 4 to 5 pounds of pasta.) But, this sauce freezes beautifully! I suggest portioning any leftovers in two cup increments and freezing them in an airtight freezer bag or container for up to three months.
- Any long pasta is great in this dish. The traditional shape is spaghetti, but linguine, bucatini, spaghettone and spaghetti alla chitarra are all work beautifully.