All photos by Farideh Sadeghin.

This Blue-Crab-and-Corn Pasta Tastes Like Summer at the Maryland Shore

Chef Nick Elmi of Philadelphia's Laurel showed us a simple but mindblowing way to get the most flavor out of sweet summer corn.

Jul 13 2018, 8:00pm

All photos by Farideh Sadeghin.

Chef Nick Elmi, the chef-owner of a trio of critically-acclaimed restaurants in Philadelphia, hadn’t heard of the Instant Pot when he popped into the MUNCHIES test kitchen.

“What, it’s like a pressure cooker?” Well, yes, Chef, but with more buttons. (For those who don’t know, the Instant Pot—much like the advent of the microwave in the 80s—is a new, easy way to cook things for people who don’t want or know how to use a pressure cooker.)

“Oh, so it’s a millennial microwave.”

Precisely. Unfortunately for any millennials that might be reading, though, there was no Instant Pot in the test kitchen that day—just a good old fashioned pressure cooker. Gird your loins, kids.

Elmi was visiting the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen last month to show us how to make a fresh pasta dish showcasing two of the best ephemeral summer ingredients—perfectly sweet corn and fresh Maryland blue crabs. And of course, we let him take advantage of the bounty of the MUNCHIES roof top garden for whatever other ingredients his little heart desired.

First things first—the pasta. Elmi makes his own, out of very simple ingredients. “This is just semolina and water,” he says, referring to the perfectly formed mini-shells. (His prep cooks use a pasta extruder to make these at the restaurant. No one's fingers went numb forming these shells.) “It actually has a pretty good shelf life [without drying it]. If it doesn’t have any fat in it, it’ll last about 7-10 days. If you start adding fats, you should probably freeze it. And it gives it that nice snap when you freeze it right away.”

We asked Elmi if he’s been doing lots of pasta dishes at his newest spot in South Philly, Royal Boucherie. “At the new restaurant, yeah. It’s a lot bigger, a lot quicker, and we have the machines to do it,” Elmi explains. “We had a prep cook that used to spend, like, thirty-two to twenty-five hours a week making pasta for us, and now it takes us fifteen minutes a day. We put everything in, turn it on for seven minutes, and [it's done].” He quickly cooks a portion of it off in a pot of well-salted boiling water.

Tiny freshly extruded shells from Royal Boucherie.

Next, the crabs. Elmi skillfully cracks them open, then pops them in the pressure cooker along with shallots, fennel, kombu, and corn husks. He covers it all with water in the pressure cooker, which he leaves on high for 30 minutes to make a super flavorful yet delicate crab broth.

Crab bodies for the pressure cooked broth.
Elmi simply hacks the crab bodies in half before tossing them into the pressure cooker.

He sautees a bit of shallot, garlic, and fresh corn kernels in some olive oil before deglazing the pan with a splash of white wine. Then he ladles in a bit of the strained crab broth as well, letting it come up to a simmer and reduce for a few minutes. The cooked pasta goes in next, along with some truffle butter to bring the sauce together.

And then: the corn puree—the beautiful, simple corn puree. “All it is is juiced corn, reduced by half,” Elmi explains to the throng of MUNCHIES staff eagerly crowding the table, trying to get as close as possible to the now-delicious smelling concoction without stepping into frame. It takes the already-prominent fresh corn flavor to a whole other level while adding a creaminess without any more dairy. We're all mesmerized at this stupid-simple hack of a flavor bomb.

The unreal corn puree reduction that, believe it or not, has literally nothing but corn in it.

While the generous portions of pre-picked crab (another job done in advance by his prep cooks—thanks guys!) and truffle butter are show-stopping, it’s the corn puree that still has everyone talking. Elmi tells us he doesn't only do this with corn. “I’ve been doing this for years,” he explains. “We just did it with celery root the other day. Basically anything that has sugar and starch in it will work.” (We're keeping that little tidbit in mind for a rainy day.)

Big chunks of plump, fresh-picked blue crab go in at the last minute.

To finish, Elmi plates the dish and garnishes it with a melange of edible flowers picked from the garden.

Elmi puts the finishing touches on with a few sugar snap pea blossoms and bronze fennel fronds.

And in between smashing crabs and churning out beautiful pasta dishes, Elmi finds time to chip away at the arduous task of writing a cookbook—although he’s beginning to realize it’s a bit more work than he anticipated. “We’re writing a cookbook for Laurel right now and I was like, ‘Here are my recipes—I’m done,’” he says, chuckling. “That’s just not how it works. Nobody told me!”

If it's going to have a whole chapter on pasta dishes like this one, we hope you take your sweet time with it, Chef.