A comforting bowl of pasta dressed with fresh, zesty crab is perfect spring fare - and this shellfish is just coming into season too, despite the weather. Which dishes are guaranteed to bring a splash of sunshine to your dining table?
Whatever the heavens may think, now the last sugary crumbs of Easter bunny are but an irritating stain on the sofa cushions, it is time to put away wintery things, and turn our attention to lighter, more spring-like fare. If nothing else, it might finally shame the weather into behaving a little more appropriately.
Crab linguine, in my opinion, fits the bill perfectly, being both chock-full of the kind of zesty flavours that encourage the pleasant delusion one is sitting on a Neapolitan terrace in the spring sunshine, and comfortingly starchy, especially when served in very un-Italian quantities on a chilly British evening.
This is a dish that will really come into its own in a few weeks' time, when the native brown crab season kicks off in earnest, but in the meantime, there's no harm in a little practice.
White or brown?
Although, as every fool knows, most of the crab's flavour resides in the cheaper brown meat, most recipes simply call for the more delicate white stuff. Perhaps Italian chefs prefer to keep the rest for sandwiches.
The only one I find which does use it, from Brixham's Old Market House restaurant, happens to be the last I try - and it's a revelation. The brown meat, which is stirred into an onion and white wine base, lends the entire dish a rich, crustaceous flavour. They pile the sweeter, fluffier white meat on top of the dish to serve, but I'm going to toss it through at the last minute, so it clings to the strands of pasta, while retaining its distinctive texture - almost like a fishy parmesan.
Although it's already easy to find British crab in my local fishmongers, I also give tinned Vietnamese king crab a go - it's the closest thing I can find to the River Cottage Fish Book's spider crab in north London. Not close enough, however - although the flavour is good, it dissolves into a soggy mess in the pan. If you can get it, however, spider crab would no doubt be most authentic.
In a dish as simple as this, every ingredient must be chosen with care, particularly pungent members of the onion family. Tom Aikens, for example, deploys vast numbers of shallots in the recipe in his book Fish, and their sweet, winey flavour completely takes over, giving the dish an oddly French character.
The Old Market House, meanwhile, goes with onion, which I find a bit boring in this context, although the spring onions on top work very well with the crab meat. Garlic, however, as used with gay abandon by everyone else, seems to be the key to this dish: finely chopped, it melts into the sauce, and the slight heat is an excellent foil to the sweetness of the seafood.
As simplicity is key here, I'm not sold on the River Cafe's shaved fennel. The aniseedy sweetness is a classic pairing with crab, but I think it would work better raw than boiled with the pasta. For me, however, it's simply a distraction from the main attraction: the crab.
A little fennel is nothing compared to Tom Aikens' sweet and sour cherry tomato and shallot sauce though - great recipe, seasoned with wine and sprigs of thyme, but the poor crustacean doesn't stand a chance. In contrast, River Cottage's fresh tomatoes are bland and mushy, giving the whole dish a rather grainy texture: their inferior April ripeness is clearly partly to blame, but it would take some seriously flavoursome tomatoes to come up to scratch in this context.
Tom Aikens uses a vastly involved crab stock in his recipe, which demands quite some preparation - with the sauce as well, his dish takes three times as long to prepare as anyone else's. Hence the Michelin star, perhaps - but I can't imagine Angela Hartnett faffing about with such things.
Anyway, I digress: the stock is lovely, but I think you can achieve a far greater intensity of flavour with brown crabmeat at rather less cost to your own time. In any case, I prefer the tanginess of the River Cafe's lemon juice and the Old Market House's white wine, although Hartnett uses both, which makes her dish rather too acidic for my taste. As I love the lemon zest she also uses, I'm going for lemon juice: the wine will make an excellent accompaniment instead.
The Old Market House goes for a white wine and cream sauce, which, together with the brown crabmeat, makes the dish very rich indeed. It would make a lovely little starter, but it's not the fresh, Mediterranean pasta I'm looking for.
Herbs and spices
I miss the chilli in that recipe too: it's a great pairing with crab, as anyone who has ever visited Singapore will testify, and adds a wonderful warmth to proceedings. I prefer the fruity acidity of fresh red chillies, as used by Aikens, Hartnett and the River Cottage to the River Cafe's dried version.
I am very keen on their fennel seeds, however: the more intensely sweet, slightly mentholated flavour works better than the fresh stuff here as far as I'm concerned, especially with the chilli and Hartnett's lemon zest. With my eyes closed, I could definitely be dining in sunnier climes. (Although eating pasta with your eyes closed is not to be advised.)
Herbs add both colour and a certain freshness to the dish: I find peppery flat-leaf parsley is more in keeping with the other ingredients than the River Cottage's chives, or Angela Hartnett's fragrant basil.
I'm going to finish off the dish with a flourish of extra virgin olive oil, as the River Cafe suggests, rather than Aikens' butter: after all, we've all eaten quite enough of that on our jacket potatoes and crumpets over the past few months. And a change is as good as a rest, as my Irish nonna always said.
1tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
1tsp fennel seeds, crushed
200g brown crabmeat
200g white crabmeat
Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
Extra virgin olive oil, to finish
Cook the pasta in a large pan of salted boiling water until al dente.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium-low heat and fry the garlic, chilli and fennel seeds for a couple of minutes until soft by not coloured. Add the zest of half a lemon and the juice of all of it, and then stir in the brown crabmeat.
Drain the pasta, reserving a few spoonfuls of the cooking water, and toss with the sauce, along with the white crabmeat and parsley. Add the extra water if the dish seems a little dry. Season to taste, and divide between bowls.
Drizzle each bowl with a little extra virgin olive oil, and serve immediately.
Which dishes or ingredients scream "spring" to you - even when the weather seems to be saying the opposite? Or are you still firmly in winter hibernation mode? And any other suggestions for when the native crab season does have us firmly in its pincers?
Felicity Cloake's perfect crab linguine. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian