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A Good Reason to Be Crabby

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Nov 30, 2006 1:40pm ET

It’s Dungeness crab season in the San Francisco Bay area and points north.

It’s an annual, seasonal treat for those of us who live here, since it’s easy to obtain these fresh, live crustaceans and cook them at home. You can find them in many seafood markets throughout the state and probably beyond.

Those who make a living catching these pretty orange-colored bottom crawlers rate the seasons the way vintners rank vintages.

This year, 2006, is supposed to be a great year, and I’ve followed the yearly forecasts, because I’m concerned about the health of the Dungeness population. Too many of our fisheries have been unnecessarily depleted by overzealous commercial interests.

A couple of years ago, I decided to experience the Dungeness hunt first hand. I also had an ulterior motive. When my teenage son and his buddies were going through a particularly feisty testosterone-driven, party hearty, dawn patrol phase, I decided to wipe them out for New Year’s Eve, in an effort to crimp their party plans.

I booked the three young men and me on a day-long rock cod-crab combo fishing trip off the Marin Coast and out to the Farallon Islands, located about 20 miles west of San Francisco. On a clear day, you can see the islands from the city or Marin Coast.

We got up around 4 a.m. on Dec. 31 and were at the dock in Berkeley by 6, ready to join the party-boat captain. Oftentimes these boats can be crowded, but on this New Year’s Eve day, ours wasn’t. So the boys not only slept on the car ride from Napa to Berkeley, they (and I) had plenty of room to stretch out on the boat and we all snoozed, warm and comfy.

By the time we heard the boat’s engines slowing down, we awakened to find the crew getting ready to pull up the full crab pots—with each of us getting six to take home.

Then, on a glassy, windless sea, we motored to the Farallons—a spectacular outcropping of rocks that's home to migrating whales, seals, sea lions, birds and great white sharks. It's one of nature’s wonders. Just make sure you go on a calm day (not a snotty one), and if you’re not up for this kind of adventure, try reading Susan Casey's The Devil’s Teeth, a fascinating book about the islands with great photos.

After we hauled up limits of ling and rock cod, we headed back to the dock and, of course, everyone slept as we cruised under the Golden Gate Bridge.

I gave most of my crabs to friends, but I saved a few for myself, which I cooked that night. I use a simple recipe, bringing spice, garlic and olive oil-seasoned water to a boil, dropping the crab in and then turning off the heat and covering the pot with a lid for 30 minutes.

I’ve found that most dry white wines pair well with Dungeness. Of course you can dress up the recipe and make crab cakes or even cook the crabs in a tomato-based sauce, where a lighter red works well too.

Last night, when I cooked two crabs with a friend, we had a 2004 Aubert Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Lauren and an off-dry 2001 Joh. Jos. Prüm Riesling Spätlese Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Wehlener Sonnenuhr.

My colleague Harvey Steiman introduced me to matching Riesling with crab, and while the rich crab marries well with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling is my favorite.

The sweetness of the Riesling is a perfect match for the sweet crabmeat, and the Riesling’s acidity gives it a refreshingly cleansing aftertaste.

The boys, well, they avoided my plot to deprive them of their sleep, and they went out that night and undoubtedly whooped it up. I, on the other hand, had the lights out early, thoroughly exhausted yet exhilarated by the experience.

John W Graham Iii
Richmond VA —  November 30, 2006 3:34pm ET
James,What a great story. I, like you, am greatly concerned about east coast over-fishing and worldwide. Your story, to me, is the left coast equivalent of crabbing for Blue Crab in the tributaries of our great Chesapeake Bay. And of course the great Striped Bass/Trout/Bluefish extravaganzas of my childhood and adolescent years. Of course then it was beer (when 21;). As it mostly is now, due to my frustration with white wine. The tip on the Riesling is a great one and I cannot wait to try it. Cheers!
Robert Fukushima
California —  November 30, 2006 6:08pm ET
Dungeness crab, one of my favorite foods. I have not tried it with riesling yet, although, now that you mention it... I typically grab a few crab when visiting my family in Humboldt County. My preferred wine is a local wine, Fieldbrook winery Tokai or Cortese, both off-dry, not unlike a spatlese-type Riesling. I find the slight sweetness of the wine really picks up the flavor of the crab much more than a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. James, you are right to be concerned about the conditions of the fishery off of our coast. The fisheries, in some cases, are severely damaged. While that is no secret, currently, crab seems to be one of the resources we can eat reasonably guilt free.

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