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Secrets of Dungeness Crab

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 6, 2006 3:32am ET

My colleague Jim Laube sounds like he had a great day crabbing (as he described so vividly in his blog). I'm lazier. I buy my crabs, although I do prefer them alive and kicking (literally). Fortunately, an Oriental market opened recently in my San Francisco neighborhood that sells live crabs, which are kept in seawater-filled tanks.

Opening week of the season, they were selling the crabs for $2.99 a pound. My other favorite market was selling cooked local crabs for $5.99 a pound. I held up two fingers and the crab guy fished out two 2-pounders, waving their claws excitedly. I gave him a thumbs-up.

I am a big fan of Dungeness crab. They're big enough (generally 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 pounds) to be easier to pick than blue crabs (which can run up to four crabs per pound), and the meat is sweet and flavorful. I lived in Florida for seven years, but I don't share Floridians' widespread enthusiasm for stone crab. For one thing, they are cooked on the boat, so they're not as fresh when you get them. And you only get the claw. I don't like claw meat as much as the leg and body meat. It's the texture.

Like Jim, I don't make crab cakes from Dungeness and I'm not big on crab in cioppino or other tomato sauces. I like Chinese-style steamed or stir-fried crabs, but my wife finds the sauce makes them too messy to eat.

So I steam them. I put a quart of water and 1/4 cup salt in a big 12-quart pot (to emulate sea water), bring it to a boil and fit one of those expandable vegetable steamers inside. In go the crabs and on goes the lid. The 2-pounders needed 15 minutes to reach ideal doneness.

No need to serve crab hot. I actually like it better at room temperature or on ice. I let the crabs cool for a few minutes, then remove the outer shell (saving the yellow crab butter that hides in the big shell for a treat). After picking away the miscellaneous bits stuck to the inside shell, use a cleaver to cut through the body between the legs.

Although you can do a pretty good job of getting to the crab meat with pointed chopsticks, I like those narrow crab forks with a long, narrow spoon on the other end. With that, and a nutcracker to get through the shells, you're in business.

Many people like to dip the crab meat in mayonnaise or melted butter, but I prefer a few drops of fresh lemon and a crisp-crusted sourdough bread. The lemon makes a perfect bridge to my favorite wine with crab—Riesling. (Thank you, Jim, for the credit on that one.) But I also like Chardonnay, especially one with a few years of age on it. The lemon helps goose the acidity on softer wines.

Which is why I pulled out Voyager Chardonnay 2002 from Margaret River, Australia, to drink with our inaugural crab of the season. I remembered enjoying this wine with marron, the lobster-like shellfish that's one of Australia's major delicacies. When the wine's pear, tropical fruit and nut flavors hit the lemon-anointed crab, it revved up our taste buds to high gear.
Brian T Laird
S.F. —  December 6, 2006 1:14pm ET
Here Here! Once a week it's fresh Dungies, a loaf of the crustiest sour dough I can find and a bottle of '03 Jordan Russian River Chard. Heaven I tell you!!!
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  December 6, 2006 2:39pm ET
Harvey, you are one of the few persons that knows to collect and savor the delicious crab butter (actually fat) stored in the main body of the crab. For maximum flavor you might want to add a bit of extra virgin olive oil and a bit of lemon juice, mix gently, then scoop it up with fresh, hard crusted, french bread. A nice Rochioli sauvignon blanc would compliment it well. JOhn B. Vlahos
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 6, 2006 3:02pm ET
I sometimes make a dipping sauce with the crab butter, whisking it together with a spoonful of hot mustard, a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of salt. These flavors like Chardonnay better than Riesling.
Andrew Chow
Singapore —  December 7, 2006 1:41am ET
Hi HarveyNext time you're in Singapore, try the Black Pepper Crab, especially with the Sri Lankan variety (one medium crab probably weighes about 5 pounds) which has lovely textured flesh. It's fried in butter and black pepper. The tourists eat the Chili Crab, which is more famous, but I swear by the Black pepper version. Very dry Riesling seems to work well, and I ate the crab with the Crawford River Riesling from Australia. Here's to seeing more of WS out in the East. Andrew
Jason Osborne
Springfield, VA —  December 7, 2006 11:49am ET
I am kind of partial to a Spanish Albarino with my Dungeness. There is a restaurant in Seattle that serves their crab with fresh lime and salt, which really brings out the natural sweetness of the crab itself.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 7, 2006 12:34pm ET
Albari¿o is a great idea. It has the right balance, fruit-forward character and minerality.
Robert Fukushima
California —  December 7, 2006 2:24pm ET
I am one of those that goes for boiled or steamed with lemon, mayo or aioli. I do enjoy the occasional salt and pepper crab or black bean crab from the wok. And yes, they are a bit messy to eat.I prefer off dry wine with crab, rielsing, cortese, tocai friulano all work for me.
Matthew Hayes
Dijon  —  December 8, 2006 10:34am ET
Can you just specify one thing, are you steaming the poor beasts to death, or do you stab them between the eyes before they go in the sauna?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 9, 2006 6:18pm ET
I've been told that steaming or boiling crustaceans sort of puts them to sleep and is more humane.
Eldon Lauber
Omaha, NE  —  October 9, 2007 5:21pm ET
There isn't anything better than spending a day out in Puget Sound catching the crabs and then having a wonderful supper of steamed crabs and a couple of bottles of St. Michelle, Dr. Loosen Riesling with friends!
Andrew Carruthers
Salt Lake City, UT —  October 10, 2007 6:34pm ET
Just FYI... placing live crabs in the freezer for a very short time before throwing them into the boiling water helps to put them into the "sleep" mode and is what I've been told is the most humane by the local fish experts. Just don't forget they are in there... don't want to actually freeze anything.

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