Deviled Dungeness crab

Deviled Dungeness crab (Bryan Chan / LAT)

IT was one of those farmers market moments. I was buying duck legs when the woman next to me asked how to cook them. I started rattling off my technique — brush them with mustard, dust them with bread crumbs — when she interrupted: "So you devil them." I wanted to argue that it was a very particular méthode française, but then I had to concede: They're deviled.

And that just reminded me what a simply superb technique deviling is.

It really does take not much more than mustard and bread crumbs to jazz up fish, meat, crab, even oysters and game hens. The piquant-crunchy coating does wonders.

But a deviled recipe doesn't have to end in an oven. It can apply to anything that will benefit from serious seasoning.

Deviling has come to be most associated with summer, when boiled eggs get taken apart and put back together with mustard to go off on picnics, but it's actually irresistible any time of year. Right about now, in fact, there's no better way to use up some of those myriad jars of fancy mustard that inevitably stack up under a cook's Christmas tree.

A dictionary will say deviling is just "preparing food with hot seasoning," particularly cayenne or dry mustard, which is much hotter than the ballpark variety. The Oxford Companion to Food dates the term to the 18th century and says it was apparently linked to hell's temperature, which makes sense.

As always, the French have a more lyrical name for the preparation — à la diable — and they apply it liberally: Larousse Gastronomique includes recipes for deviled beef, herring, oysters and tongue, all coated in mustard and crumbs and baked. But they also double the effect by serving a deviled sauce alongside.

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The Beard way

DEVILING used to be a much bigger deal in American cooking. In the '60s and early '70s, James Beard busily wrote recipes for deviled ham, eggs, chicken, kidneys, crab and scallops. Most of them are just as tempting today. His deviled treatment of mushrooms, in fact, works even better with 21st century tweaks: shiitakes instead of button mushrooms, tamari instead of sherry vinegar. And while Beard said mushrooms should be served for breakfast, with bacon, toast and a broiled tomato, they are even better at dinner, ladled over grits.

For all the range in deviled recipes, most rely on the same key components, used liberally. (The devil is not in the details.) Mustard is essential. Dijon, with its serious tanginess and creamy texture, is best because it contains very little besides mustard seeds and vinegar, so you get pure flavor, no bitterness.

Coarse-grain mustard is less pungent but has an intriguing nuttiness in both taste and texture. And dry mustard powder can be used to ramp up the heat in either of those. (Dissolving it in water to make a paste helps distribute it more smoothly.)

Worcestershire sauce is another staple of deviled foods, at least of the English and American variety. The flavor manages to be both ineffable and assertive, probably from the secret ingredient (fermented anchovies). Tabasco sauce, or any hot red pepper sauce, is also key. But you can also add extra heat with horseradish, either along with or instead of all the other hot elements.

For a more contemporary effect, try chipotle hot sauce instead of Tabasco, and Jamaican Busha Browne's sauce instead of Worcestershire. Otherwise, the same condiments used for years work fine.

One ingredient, though, has changed for the better. Panko is far, far superior to the Italian-style, fine dried bread crumbs usually called for in deviled recipes.

For some deviled dishes, fresh bread crumbs are a smarter choice. In deviled Dungeness crab, the sauce is made from mayonnaise spiked with the usual hot seasonings and is rather rich. Panko soaks up the sauce and turns sodden, while fresh crumbs wick it, so that the crab is grease-free and the bread has the wonderful saucy flavors.

To get crumbs of any kind crunchy, you need to drizzle them with butter before baking — just enough to add crispiness without making them soggy.

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