Chesapeake Bay Cooking

Chesapeake Bay Cooking

by John Shields
Loosen your belts and get ready to chow down on a pile of steamed blue crabs, dine on a Maryland plantation-style feast, or graze through the stalls of Baltimore's Cross Street Market with television host and "Culinary Ambassador of the Bay," John Shields.  In this companion cookbook to the 26-part public television series, take a delicious tour


Loosen your belts and get ready to chow down on a pile of steamed blue crabs, dine on a Maryland plantation-style feast, or graze through the stalls of Baltimore's Cross Street Market with television host and "Culinary Ambassador of the Bay," John Shields.  In this companion cookbook to the 26-part public television series, take a delicious tour with Shields along the Chesapeake's 4,600 miles of pristine coastline and through the bountiful farmlands of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

In Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields, you will learn how to prepare 190 recipes from this mid-Atlantic region's culinary fare, including rockfish and gumbos, duck and Maryland fried chicken, beaten biscuits and the famous Lady Baltimore cake.  Best of all, you'll learn everything you need to know about the undisputed star of Chesapeake cuisine--crabs. Shields's book includes plenty of helpful crabformation--how to buy, cook, hammer, and eat blue crabs, why you never eat the "devil," and how to tell the difference between "jimmies" (male crabs) and "sooks" (female crabs).

With John Shields as your guide, drop in on the locals, who, for generations, have made this region one of the most popular destinations on the East Coast. Visit Crisfield, home to the Miss Crustacean beauty pageant, where you can sample the crispy, sweet, fried soft-shell crabs. Don't miss the rambunctious two-day chicken festival on the Delmarva Peninsula, where "there's a whole lot of frying chicken going on."  And, since Shields always loves a party, you'll join the Biddlecomb family for a real Virginia-style Fourth of July, where the menu includes Miss Lorraine's Barbecued Chicken, Lady Liberty Seafood Salad, and Pickled Watermelon Rind.  And you can't leave Baltimore without visiting Little Italy to share a meal of Rockfish Braised in Gravy with home cook Carmella Sartori.

Here are satisfying foods, easy-to-prepare recipes, and the people who've kept Chesapeake cuisine cooking for centuries--all brought home to you by the region's favorite son, John Shields.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This PBS-TV series companion gives a spirited look at the down-home food favored by folks living along the coastline and on nearby farmlands of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Expectedly, seafood grabs the spotlight. The blue crab is a local icon, and Shields provides seven recipes for crab cakes, from Senator Barb's Spicy Bay Crab Cakes (courtesy of Maryland's Sen. Mikulski), using soft white bread for binding instead of cracker crumbs, to Faidley's World Famous Crab Cakes served up in Baltimore's Lexington Market. Eight recipes for soft-shelled crabs range from Soft-Shell Crab Moutarde to the savory Pecan-Coated Soft-Shells with Whiskey-Lemon Butter. Eight oyster recipes are capped by the celebratory Oysters Poached in Champagne. Moving off the water, a full complement of other dishes includes Maryland Panfried Chicken, coated with a buttermilk-based marinade and dipped in Chesapeake seasonings, an ultra rich Smoked Country Ham and Roquefort Pie, and appealingly simple Succotash, beans and corn kernels sparked with butter and lemon juice. Salads, vegetables, sturdy breakfasts and desserts, the last ranging from Lady Baltimore Cake to Sweet Potato Pie, round out the banquet. Shields, who grew up in Baltimore, provides stories and anecdotes in homey sidebars, along with guidelines for cleaning soft-shelled crabs and cooking a muskrat. He's an infectiously enthusiastic guide to this appealing fare. Pictures not seen by PW. $25,000 ad/promo; author tour. (Apr.)

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Crown Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Tucked away in the middle of the Mid-Atlantic coast lies the Chesapeake Bay. While most of its eastern seaboard neighbors have become vast urban areas, transforming themselves into cosmopolitan centers, the Chesapeake region has quietly continued its more genteel way of life with a self-sufficient lifestyle and time-honored cooking traditions. Recently the Chesapeake has enjoyed a rediscovery by the rest of the country. Visitors from all parts are making the Bay a destination, perhaps seeking out an environment still relatively unspoiled that has a culture and way of life that recall simpler times, a style of living that is rapidly disappearing elsewhere.

For generations the Chesapeake and its inhabitants have kept a relatively low profile on the food scene, with many of their classic recipes and cooking preparations locked away in family recipe boxes or orally handed down from one generation to the next. For those who have not had the pleasure of sitting down to a hearty Chesapeake meal of blue crab, rockfish, fresh clams and oysters, chicken, waterfowl, country hams, and tangy barbecued meats--complete with all the trimmings--it is my pleasure to introduce this glorious region and its outstanding cuisine.

I grew up on the shores of the Chesapeake, feasting on the bounties of the Bay, enjoying the sweet meat of blue crab, briny Chincoteague oysters, and panfried wild rockfish. I delighted in eating freshly picked Silver Queen corn, vine-ripened red tomatoes, homemade country sausages, and salty, smoked Smithfield hams. I took pleasure in every bite of savory roasted wild goose, crisp fried chicken, and pies filled to nearly overflowing with fresh peaches, apples, blackberries, or strawberries laced with simmered rhubarb. Looking back I now realize that I was blessed to have grown up in a region rich with the best foods that land and water have to offer. As is often the case with locals, I took many of these culinary joys for granted. It's true about the best things in life being right under your nose: I traveled around the world in search of fine cuisine only to learn that some of the finest eating to be found was in my Chesapeake homeland.

Gertie's Crab Cakes

Gertie Cleary hailed from Baltimore's Greenmount Avenue and her cooking was legendary throughout St. Ann's parish and northeast Baltimore. Her crab cakes are my absolute favorite. I must, however, admit my bias. Gertie was my grandmother, and I grew up on these wonderful spiced morsels of crab. This recipe is in the most traditional style of Bay crab cakes. It uses a slightly spiced mixture of mayonnaise and egg, and is lightly bound together with cracker crumbs.

Makes 8 crab cakes, serves 4

1 egg
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Chesapeake seasoning
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Dash of Tabasco sauce
1 pound backfin crabmeat, picked over
1/3 cup saltine cracker crumbs
Vegetable oil, for frying (optional)
Clarified butter (see Note) and/or olive oil, for sauteing (optional)
Tartar Sauce (recipe follows) and lemon wedges, for accompaniment

Mix the egg, mayonnaise, mustard, pepper, Chesapeake seasoning, Worcestershire, and Tabasco together in a blender or mixing bowl until frothy. Place the crabmeat in a bowl and sprinkle on the cracker crumbs. Pour the egg mixture over the top. Gently toss or fold the ingredients together, taking care not to break up the lumps of crabmeat. Form the cakes by hand or with an ice cream scoop into 8 mounds about 3 inches in diameter and 3/4 inch thick. Do not pack the mixture too firmly. The cakes should be as loose as possible, yet still hold their shape. Place the cakes on a tray or platter lined with wax paper, cover, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before cooking.

Pour oil into a heavy skillet to a depth of about 1 1/2 inches. Heat the oil and fry the crab cakes, a few at a time, until golden brown, about 4 minutes on each side. Remove with a slotted utensil to paper towels to drain. Or broil the cakes: Slip them under a preheated broiler until nicely browned, turning to cook evenly, about 4 to 5 minutes on each side. Or saute the cakes: Heat a small amount of clarified butter or olive oil, or a combination, in a skillet and saute the cakes, turning several times, until golden brown, about 8 minutes total cooking time.

Serve at once, with Tartar Sauce and lemon wedges on the side.

Tartar Sauce

Makes 1 1/2 cups

1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup finely chopped dill pickle
1/4 cup minced onion
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon dill pickle juice

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Chill for at least 1 hour before serving.

Steamed Blue Crabs

Every Chesapeake family has its own recipe for steamed crabs--actually "recipe" is a misnomer, as it is more a process rather than an exact recipe. Some insist on washing the crabs before steaming, but others claim that washing takes away the brininess of the crab. Another method is to place the live crabs in an ice water bath before cooking. This icing process numbs the crabs, making them easier to handle, keeps the crabs from losing their claws during the steaming process, and helps the seasonings stick to the shells.

Serves 4 novice pickers or 2 pros

2 cans (12 ounces each) flat beer (see below)
2 cups distilled white vinegar
Ice water (optional)
24 live large male blue crabs(jimmies)
3/4 cup Chesapeake seasoning
6 tablespoons kosher salt

Pour the beer and vinegar into a steamer pot or a large heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid. Put a round raised rack that is tall enough to clear the liquid into the pot. Bring the liquid to a boil.

While the pot is coming to a boil, fill a tub with ice water, if desired, and put the crabs in it for 3 minutes or so.

Mix the Chesapeake seasoning and salt together in a small bowl. Place a layer of crabs on the rack in the pot. Sprinkle with a generous coating of the seasoning. Working quickly, continue layering and seasoning the crabs until all the blues are in the pot and you have used up all the seasoning. Put on the lid and steam over medium-high heat until the crabs are bright red, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove the crabs with tongs.

Serve hot. Leftover crabs may be refrigerated and either eaten cold the next day or picked for crabmeat to use in your favorite recipe.

Flat Beer

Locals insist on flat beer whenever steaming crabs or shrimp. They feel flat beer does not impart the harsh, almost metallic taste that fresh beer does. To flatten beer, simply pour it into a bowl and leave it at room temperature for an hour or two. A trick the natives use to hasten the flattening process is to sprinkle a little salt into the beer--they swear it flattens the beer quicker than who-struck-John.

Mrs. Kitching's Crab Loaf

Frances Kitching, culinary first lady of Maryland's Smith Island and coauthor of Mrs. Kitching's Smith Island Cookbook, has served this crab loaf appetizer to countless visitors--including governors, senators, and famous celebrities--at her off-the-beaten-path restaurant located on the island. Baked in a casserole dish, the crab loaf is slightly cooled and cut into small squares, which may then be served as a first course or a pass-around with drinks.

Serves 10 to 12 as an appetizer

7 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, finely diced
1/2 medium green bell pepper, finely diced
3 teaspoons cornstarch
1 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
2 teaspoons Chesapeake seasoning
2 pounds backfin or special crabmeat, picked over
8 slices bread, crust removed, cubed
Cherry tomatoes, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350° F.

Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a saute pan. Add the onion and  bell pepper and saute over medium heat until slightly soft, about 3 minutes; set aside. Dissolve the cornstarch with the milk in a small saucepan. Whisk over low heat until a smooth paste is formed. Remove from the heat. Mix together the eggs, mayonnaise, mustard, Chesapeake seasoning, and cornstarch mixture in a bowl. Stir in the sauteed onion and bell pepper. Place the crabmeat in a separate mixing bowl and pour the wet mixture over the top. Add half of the cubed bread and mix gently.

Lightly butter a 10 x 14-inch baking dish. Add the crab mixture and spread evenly without packing down. Place the remaining cubed bread on top of the mixture. Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter and spoon over the bread cubes. Bake for 35 minutes. Remove the casserole from the oven and let it stand 5 minutes before serving. Cut into 3-inch squares and serve on a platter garnished with cherry tomatoes.

Eastern Shore Crab Soup

Almost every region around the Bay has its own version of crab soup, and the Eastern Shore, known for its quintessential Chesapeake cooking style, is no exception. Okra and rice set this soup a world apart from the heavier, ham-based crab soups prepared elsewhere on the Bay.

Serves 6 to 8

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
1 large onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
4 cups sliced okra (about 1 pound)
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
Fish Stock (recipe follows)
4 large ripe tomatoes, diced, or 1 can (14 1/2 ounces) whole tomatoes, diced, with their juice
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
1 cup white rice
1 pound claw crabmeat, picked over
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Melt the butter in a large pot. Add the onion, bell pepper, okra, and garlic. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Add the stock, tomatoes, Worcestershire, thyme, and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.

Add the rice and continue to cook for 30 minutes. Add the crabmeat and simmer for 5 minutes longer. Remove the bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

Fish Stock

Makes about 2 quarts

3 1/2 to 4 pounds fish heads, bones, or trimmings
10 cups cold water
2 onions, sliced
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
4 cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
4 sprigs of parsley

Combine all the ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil.  Simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes, skimming off surface foam frequently.  Strain through a fine sieve or cheesecloth.  Cool completely and refrigerate if not using immediately.

Maryland Panfried Chicken

You'll have no trouble getting people to the table with this one. In fact, it'll take a lot of shooing to keep them out of the kitchen while you're frying. This world-famous dish puts the Colonel to shame. When you put the chicken pieces in the bag, it's your basic "shake and bake" technique--but you don't bake. You brown the chicken in very hot oil, then cover the pan and reduce the heat to steam the chicken; this keeps the meat moist while producing a crisp coating. I serve my panfried chicken with buttery mashed potatoes, and country greens (see page 196).

Serves 4

1 frying chicken (3 to 4 pounds), cut into serving pieces

1 quart buttermilk
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Chesapeake seasoning
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
3 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half
Juice of 1 lemon

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons Chesapeake seasoning
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon rubbed sage
1/2 teaspoon powdered thyme
1/2 teaspoon cayenne

Vegetable oil (and lard, optional, 3 parts oil to 1 part lard), for frying
Cream Gravy (recipe follows), for accompaniment

Place the chicken pieces in a shallow dish. To prepare the marinade, pour the buttermilk in a bowl and add the Chesapeake seasoning, cracked black pepper, Tabasco, garlic, and lemon juice. Mix well and pour the mixture over the chicken to cover. Cover the dish and refrigerate overnight.
For the coating, put the flour in a bowl and add the salt, Chesapeake seasoning, ground black pepper, sage, thyme, and cayenne. Mix together well and transfer to a strong paper bag or large, heavy-duty plastic bag. When ready to fry, remove the chicken from the buttermilk and wipe off the excess. Place the chicken in the bag of seasoned flour and shake to coat well.
Pour vegetable oil into a large cast-iron skillet to a depth of about 1 1/4 inches. Heat until very hot but not smoking. Add the chicken and brown on both sides, turning frequently. Do not crowd the pan. Reduce the heat to medium and cover the skillet. Cook the chicken, turning occasionally, for about 25 minutes. Remove the chicken with a slotted utensil to paper towels to drain. Reserve the cooking fat. Serve with Cream Gravy on the side.

Cream Gravy

Makes about 2 cups

Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the cooking fat.  Stir in the flour and cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes.  Slowly whisk in the milk.  Stir constantly until thickened, about 4 to 5 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.

"That's One Big Ole Frying Pan"

I reminisce about the days when Chesapeake cooks would haul out their big frying pans to cook up a generous helping of chicken for Sunday supper, but just the sight of the gargantuan frying pan used by the Delmarva Poultry Festival would have my grandmother Nanny Shields pass right out from the thought of coating and frying all those birds.  There's a whole lot of chicken frying going on at this Chesapeake community get-together.

This frying pan is not something you'd keep in the kitchen cupboard or have hanging behind the stove.  It sits on a concrete base, measures 10 feet in diameter, and is 8 inches deep.  It could keep a pot holder company working overtime, with a handle that measures in at 8 feet long.  I cringe thinking how many trips to the grocery store it would take to tote 180 gallons of cooking oil, which is how much this frying pan requires.

The Delmarva Poultry Festival is a rambunctious two-day event held annually in June on the Delmarva Peninsula, the thin strip of land that separates the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.  Chicken rules the roost on the peninsula, as the peninsula is one of the country's largest poultry producers, and you can be sure that during the gala celebration there is a lot of frying.  Depending on appetites, between eight and ten thousand pieces of chicken are panfried, translating into 370 pounds of flour, 60 pounds of salt, 30 pounds of pepper, and, for color, 30 pounds of paprika.

Meet the Author

John Shields, author of The Chesapeake Bay Cookbook and The Chesapeake Bay Crab Cookbook, lives in Baltimore, Maryland. He can also be found on the World Wide Web at  A portion of his royalties from this book will be donated to the conservation/environmental organization, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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