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January 19, 2006

Talk of the Table heading

For the love of crab


photo of plate of crab legs and butter.I love crab. There's no simpler way to put it.

My preferred method of eating crab is straightforward -- cracked at the table, dipped in a little bowl of melted butter flavored with a heap of fine-chopped, crushed garlic and a squeeze of lemon (in the case of dinner last night, a Meyer lemon from one of the small trees in our yard). Add a few slices of fresh-baked baguette and you have a meal.

Of course, in Humboldt County, when you say crab you mean Dungeness crab, aka Cancer magister, a tasty crustacean that takes its name from Dungeness, an unincorporated Washington town at the mouth of Puget Sound, reputedly home of the first commercial harvesting operation, although that ignores the fact that crabs have undoubtedly been caught, eaten and traded since time immemorial.

The species ranges up and down the Pacific Coast from Baja to Alaska, but they're rare south of Monterey. There are other crabs, of course: soft shell crabs and blue crabs from the East Coast, stone crabs from the Gulf, those giant mutant Alaskan King crabs that look like something from a monster movie.

Growing up, I associated Dungeness crab with San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, where, at that certain time of year, steaming pots fill the sidewalk with that lovely smell and vendors offer crab cocktails that typically bury the delicate flavor of the shellfish with that sweet and spicy variation on catsup known as cocktail sauce.

Working in Humboldt County kitchens for many years, I've boiled my share of crabs. My method was pretty much classic: I'd bring a huge pot full of water to a rolling boil, add a fistful of salt and a pile of McCormick's Old Bay Seasoning, let it roll a while to unleash the spices, then try to grab the crabs without getting pinched. That's not always an easy thing to do when they're fresh and frisky -- they don't want to be picked up and they sure don't want that hot bath -- but you drop them in anyway, and cook them 8-10 minutes depending on size.

I recall scenes in the kitchen of the Silver Lining, where I was chef for eight or nine years, that rivaled Woody Allen's Annie Hall lobster slapstick: Cooks menacing waitresses with live crabs and runaway crabs skittering off the counter to hide under counters, trying to escape being boiled alive. A piercing shriek came from the walk-in fridge one night: A waitress going to fetch some cream was attacked, pinched around her ankles by one of four crabs that had escaped a poorly sealed box on the floor. No blood was drawn, but it was seriously traumatic. The crab got the death penalty.

I should mention that boiling is not the only way to cook crab. I've heard you can microwave them, but I can't recommend it since I've never tried it. Dixie Gorrel pioneered an alternative method up at Larrupin Café, but I'm pretty sure she abandoned it. Her grilled crab was incredibly tasty, but almost impossible to eat. For some reason the meat adheres to the shell and getting it out requires far too much effort.

By this time mid-winter I've usually consumed a few crabs. I'll get one or two as soon as the season opens. Then there's the annual Journal holiday bash (or Christmas party, if you prefer), which typically centers on a baker's dozen or so fresh-cooked, backed and cleaned crabs. (I figure a half a crab per person works out about right and that's taking into consideration those few who don't eat crab, for whatever reason.) I reserve them in advance from Cap'n Zach's Crab Shack, conveniently located on the way to Judy and Bob's place in Fieldbrook, and pile them on a newspaper-covered stainless steel table in the garage, along with nutcrackers, garlic butter and a couple of big bowls. Staff, family and friends devour them -- completely -- while cheerily sipping some of Bob's fine wine.

This year was different. For reasons I don't need to go into here we did not have our holiday party -- and it wouldn't have been the same if we had. If you follow the local news at all you know about the long, drawn-out delay in the start of the harvest, which, at the risk of inflaming some of our conservative readers, I blame on the inherent flaws of monopolistic capitalism. I've lost a couple of good friends to Davey Jones and I know how dangerous it is to go to sea in the rough waters of winter, and for that reason I don't buy crab imported from north or south of here. I can wait.

And I did until yesterday, when I bought a crab, cooked that day, from Murphy's Market in Sunnybrae, which purchases their crab directly from a local fisherman. We ate it for dinner last night (as seen above) and of course it was great -- worth the wait.

For good measure I also picked up a couple of crab cakes: today's lunch. Since my friend Chuck Kirsher runs the deli at Murphy's, I figure they will be good -- he ran a couple of great Cajun restaurants, including the Jubilee out in Blue Lake and, more recently, had Chuck's Food Place up in Trinidad. He's one of several local chefs who have left the restaurant grind for deli life, but that's a whole different column.

When I asked at the deli counter what was in them, Rachael (who was working on her birthday) gave me the recipe, but it was for 5 pounds of crab and mass quantities of cakes, so this morning I had Chuck break it down for me as follows:

Chuck's Crab Cakes

Chuck's Crab Cakes

        • 1 large egg
        • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
        • 1/2 cup Panko Japanese-style breadcrumbs
        • Dash salt and pepper
        • Fine diced scallions or roasted red peppers optional
        • 1 lb. crab (Canned is OK in the off-season, just be sure to drain the water off.)

Form into patties -- portion size is up to you. Bake at 325 degrees for 12-16minutes. Serve hot from the oven.

Chuck recommends topping with a rémoulade or tartar sauce and a squeeze of lemon. My suggestion would be aioli and, again, a squeeze of lemon, but I don't think I'll have time to whip up a proper aioli today, so just the lemon may have to suffice. Either way, I know I will enjoy them. In fact I'm getting hungry right now...



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