"Wanna go Dungeness crab fishing?" my friend Jim asked me the other day. He was heading out of Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco, to fish for rock cod and crabs with some mutual friends.
I hesitated. Rock cod fishing is pretty grim this time of year, and on these boats you don't actually catch Dungeness crabs so much as watch the mates haul pots. Everyone then splits the bounty at the end of the trip. You might come home with crabs (in a good way), but it ain't fishing. Still, I like Dungeness crabs. A lot. "Okay, I'm in," I told Jim.
Having picked the meat from maybe 5,000 crabs in my life, I've got it down to a science. I don't miss any meat.
I'm glad I did. The experience flooded me with memories of my happy past on Long Island, where I dug clams from a little boat in the back bays. There's nothing like the thrill you get each time you drop a pot or clam rake into the water. Hope and fear compete as you grope at every nuance your trap sends you while you haul it in. It may feel heavy, but are these crabs of legal size? Do I have several dozen clams in my rake, or is it just full of rocks?
We'd soon find out. Our little group boarded the fishing boat Huli-Cat before dawn. It was opening day of the Dungeness crab season, but we'd start the day rockfishing. I was not optimistic. "Don't get your hopes up," I told everyone. "Rockfishing today is going to be tough."
It was. We did catch a few decent fish, and I caught seven, but four were so small I tossed them back. The three black rock cod I did keep weren't huge, either, but they'd do for dinner. Such a pretty face....
Enough of that. Time for the real fun. We packed up and headed to a string of crab pots the captain had dropped at midnight the previous evening. Everyone began buzzing about what we might find, whether we'd be on the crab or not. I found myself buzzing right along with them.
It really did feel like being a crewmember on the crab boats of "The Deadliest Catch," only without the bad weather, danger, or long hours. Someone in the bow would gaff the buoy and carry it back to the crew, who would run the buoy line onto the hydraulic winch and begin hauling the pots up from the depths.
The winches whined and groaned, and the line shuddered and drifted back and forth on its way up from the ocean floor, nearly 100 feet down. We all gathered around to watch. Would there be crabs? How many? We began placing bets on how many crabs would be in the pots. Ten? Twenty? Zero?
Suddenly the pot would surface and we'd strain to see if it was full of the buff-and-orange crabs we all sought. We were not disappointed. After a slow first two pots, it rapidly became a bonanza.
The crabs came over the side thick and fast—and huge. More than a few were heavier than two pounds, and a couple could have pushed three pounds. They were truly massive crabs, a joy to see! After the grim rock cod fishing, seeing all these crabs instantly lifted everyone's mood.
What should we do with them? Cioppino! Crab salad! Crab cakes! Everyone had his own special dish for the first Dungeness of the year.
We soon had our limits: Six crabs per person. Even the mates got to take some home for dinner. What's more is that we'd only gone through 11 pots out of the 35 the captain had set for us. An unbelievable haul!
Most of our group had their crabs cooked and cracked at a nearby fish market, but—and I know this probably shocks you—I prefer to crack my own crabs.
Why? I'm just better at it than a harried fish market employee. Having picked the meat from maybe 5,000 crabs in my life, I've got it down to a science. I don't miss any meat. And these Dungeness crabs were loaded. I managed to pick out 2 pounds, 15 ounces of meat from my six crabs, nearly a half-pound of meat per crab—unheard of in my experience.
I have a tutorial on crab picking over at my old About.com site, but I can offer you a few tips here:
• Lay out a thick layer of newspaper on the table you're working on.
• Have bowls for "good" shells (the legs and claws; save them for making crab stock), bad shells, and meat, and arm yourself with a nutpick and a pair of kitchen shears.
• Work from legs to claws to body; extracting the body meat requires the most concentration. And don't forget the good meat in the second joints of the larger legs!
• Use shears to cut the shells of the legs and claws. You get a cleaner cut and lose less meat than when you use a mallet or nutcracker.
Holly A. Heyser
Crab stock was my first order of business after I picked the crabs. My crab stock has fennel and a little tomato in it, giving it a nice anise note and a pretty red color. It's a great soup base, but crab stock will not freeze well for more than a month or so. So have something in mind when you make it. I had a crab risotto in mind:
Crab stock + tomato + Marsala + lots and lots of fresh Dungeness crab meat = too damn good for words. A seafood risotto is on my short list of "death row" meals, and this is one of the better ones I've made in a while.
Seafood risottos are especially good when you have a special variety of rice called Vialone Nano, a tiny, medium-grain rice from Venice that is traditionally used for fish and shellfish risotto there. I get mine from Scott at Sausage Debauchery, but you can find it in Italian markets and occasionally at Whole Foods.
What about that rock cod I caught? He got the crab treatment, too. I butterflied the fish—removing almost all the bones but keeping the fish largely whole—then stuffed it with a mixture of bread crumbs, mushrooms, parsley, garlic, olive oil, lemon, and lemon zest, plus lots and lots of crabmeat. I sewed up the fish to hold the stuffing, sprinkled coarse fleur de sel on it and baked the fish at 350 degrees until it was done.
Pretty cool, eh? I have a similar recipe for chanterelle-stuffed striped bass that has more detailed instructions, if you feel like stuffing a fish in the near future.
I have enough crabmeat to do two more recipes, but I am not sure where to go with it. Maybe Asian? Any good Asian crab recipes where the meat has been removed from the shell? How about Scandinavia? Do the Scandos eat crab? I suppose they must. Suggestions? Thoughts? Ideas?
More on crabs:
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