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Crustacean Nation: Shrimp, Lobster and Crab

 By Tarla Fallgatter (

 Lobster tail dipped in butter, shrimp freshly cooked in their shells and deep fried soft shell crabs with tartar sauce–can it get any better than this?

One of my fondest memories is sitting on a riverbank in Portugal shelling and eating freshly steamed fresh shrimp. I'm sure everyone has special memories of the first lobster ever eaten or of the first scallop served with its roe ever tasted or...but what is all the fuss about?

What is a crustacean?

Crustaceans are shellfish that have an external skeleton. They all have legs and are able to move.  Some, like lobsters, have a jointed shell that helps them to move.  Crabs do not have a jointed shell but use their legs to scurry about.

Crustaceans are members of the Arthropoda family that includes spiders, scorpions and insects. They are covered in a hard horny shell or, more correctly, carapace.  This shell is shed periodically as the creature grows–evidence of which can be seen washed upon on shorelines.  Generally speaking, it's a good idea to choose lobsters and crab whose shells are encrusted and obviously old, as the flesh will have had time to develop and fill the shell.  A crustacean with a new shell will often be small and lacking in flavor–an exception to this rule is the soft-shell crab.

            Many crustaceans are available all year, but tend to be at their best in the summer.  When choosing a large crustacean such as lobster or crab, look for specimens that feel heavy for their size and have legs and claws intact.  Ideally, they should be bought live, but if already cooked store in the refrigerator and eat as soon as possible–certainly within 24 hours.

            Most shellfish have indigestible or inedible parts, such as the gills or ``dead men's fingers" of crab and lobsters, or the intestinal tract of the large shrimp.  These must be removed during preparation.  The roe, also called coral, and liver, sometimes called tomalley, of the lobster should never be discarded.  They are considered delicacies and can be used for delicate sauce.

            The cooking time for crustaceans tends to be short because the flesh is tender and can become dry very quickly with overcooking.  Many change their color when cooked:  the blue-black lobster turns scarlet and the blue-gray shrimp turns pink.


Shrimp are among the most widely available and most widely used of seafood.  They are found from the equator to the polar seas, in open oceans, bays, estuaries and even fresh water.  More than 300 species of shrimp are fished worldwide for human consumption.

In the eastern United States, shrimp is the common name for all types and sizes.  On the West Coast, large shrimp are most widely known as prawns, and the name shrimp is reserved for the small cooked and peeled variety.

Warm-water shrimp, found all around the tropics and in most subtropical waters, make up approximately 80% of world shrimp consumption. Virtually all of the frozen raw shrimp in the market are of this type.

Cold-water shrimp are generally small shrimp found in the northern oceans of the world.  By far the majority of the commercial cold-water shrimp is sold in cooked and peeled form.

            Shrimp commonly found in the United States such as the American brown shrimp, pink shrimp and white shrimp can vary in size from 2 to 6 inches and are more closely related to the king prawn.  They are fished south of the Carolinas and along the Gulf Coast.  Much of the shrimp eaten in the United States is from the Mexican coast.

Shrimp are available all year around and are sold raw or cooked, shelled or unshelled, whole or headless.  They are best eaten on the day of purchase and peeled just before serving to retain moisture.  Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator, but eat within 24 hours. 

            Shrimp meat is approximately 18% protein and less than 1% fat.  The one nutritional drawback of shrimp is that it is relatively high in cholesterol.

My favorite shrimp recipe is:

Pickled Shrimp

3/4C cider vinegar

1-1/2 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper

2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. sugar

3/4 tsp. English-style dry mustard

1/4 tsp. dried hot red pepper flakes, or to taste

1/4 tsp. mustard seeds, crushed

1/4 tsp. coriander seeds, crushed

1C olive oil

3 large garlic cloves, minced

1 bay leaf

1-1/2 lb. (24 - 30) large shrimp, shelled and deveined

1 small onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced

1 lemon, thinly sliced

1 Tbsp. fresh dill, minced

1 Tbsp. Italian parsley, minced

1 baguette, thinly sliced and toasted in a 350F for 5 minutes

In a bowl whisk together the vinegar, pepper, salt, sugar, mustard, red pepper flakes, mustard seeds and coriander seeds.  Add the oil in a stream, whisking.  Whisk the marinade until it is emulsified and stir in the garlic and bay leaf.

 Bring a pot of water to a boil, add a pinch of sea salt and return to the boil.  Add the shrimp and cook until just cooked through–about 3 minutes, drain and add to the marinade along with the dill and parsley.  Let the mixture cool, stir in the onion and lemon slices, transfer to a serving bowl and let cool about 1 hour before serving or chill and serve the next day. Serve with the baguette slices.

MAKES:  8 servings     


The lobster resembles the freshwater crayfish in external appearance.  The right pincer is usually thicker and more highly developed, since this is the one that is chiefly used for holding and cracking food or enemies.  The other pincer is narrower and is used to break up the prey and carry it to the mouth.

Lobster like cooler waters and a rocky seabed. Their color varies from region to region to match that of their habitat.  Old lobsters, especially from American waters, can grow up to 27 inches long and over 20 pounds in weight.

            The lobster is a timid animal that hides in holes and under stones by day and searches for food by night.  In summer it lives near the coast, in winter at depths of up to 165 feet. 

            Lobsters are most meaty just before they cast their shells and during the following month or two. The claws of the male are especially sought after, as they contain more meat than those of the female.  On the other hand, the tail of the female is slightly wider (and more fleshy) than that of the male.  In many parts of the world, the female tail is considered the greatest delicacy.

            The northern lobster is by far the most hardy species on the market.  It is most plentiful in Canadian waters, off Newfoundland and Labrador, so that Canada now has the largest lobster industry in the world.


In its shell the common crab looks as if it is lying between two large, flat dishes.  At the sides and front, the shell has toothed markings.  There are short antennae between the eyes.

            The stemmed eyes and antennae can be drawn in and hidden in small openings in the shell.  The first of the five pairs of legs has developed into gripping and cracking pincers, while the four rear pairs, each made up of four bristly segments, end in claws. 

            These crabs can reach a weight of 13 pounds, when the shell will be about 1 foot across.  The favorite habitat of the common crab is a cleft in the rock in up to 330 feet of water.

            In comparison to the impressive size of the shell, the body of the common crab contains relatively little meat, but the liver and roe have an excellent flavor and are considered a delicacy.

            Dungeness Crab (the California Crab) is by far the most popular crustacean on the West Coast of the United States and has been adopted almost as an heraldic device in San Francisco. Although only about 25% of the weight is edible meat, the market demand for this crab is rising continuously.

If you love shellfish you should invest in a good cookbook and start preparing some delicious dishes at home because it is very expensive when eaten in restaurants.  Enjoy it while it lasts!

 Restaurant Note

 For delicious shrimp with candied walnuts head for Eurochow at 1099Westwood Blvd. in Westwood,  (310) 209-0066).  It is an incredible building well worth a visit if only to enjoy the architecture.  You can order Italian dishes and Asian dishes from the same menu and enjoy them together. This one is a real treasure.

 Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, ``sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her ``Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.

Crustacean Links

 1.      For information about shrimp farming in Belize click on

 2.     What is the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company Restaurant?

 3.     Try Three Sesame Shrimp at

 4.     Learn all about crab at

 5.     What are ghost shrimp?

 6.     What is the largest fresh water invertebrate on earth?

 7.     To order lobster online, click on

 8.     Learn how to steam or boil a lobster at

 9.     How do you eat a lobster?

 10. Information about blue crabs is just a click away at


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