So Many Crabs, So Little Time
It's only a matter of time before crab season is over. Enjoy it while you can.
Thursday, January 31, 2002
Photo by: Randy Tunnell
I''ve never understood why the opening of crab season isn''t treated as a major holiday around here. Or why the closing of crab season doesn''t cause dread and anxiety.
Dungeness crab is one of the best things you can eat. We live in a place that is teeming with this sweet fruit of the sea. There are only four months left until crab season ends in June. Why isn''t everyone freaking out?
Crab has a reputation for being difficult. Yes, if you want to cook it yourself, then you must buy it live on the way home from work and do it that night. Yes, there is the task of cracking it and then getting the meat out of the shell, the claws, and the skinny little legs. And then you''ve got a big mess of shells to get rid of. So part of the problem is that crabs are not practical-and we live in an unfortunately practical age.
Beyond that, crabs are weird and scary. They look like they come from another planet-one that is not very friendly. Crabs look downright menacing. They look like nature''s Edward Scissorhands. In place of paw or cute little hoof, they''ve got weapons. When you see them in the aquarium or on "Animal Planet," they''re skittering around sideways.
And it''s impossible to deny that there''s something bug-like about them.
I choose to view all of this as exotic. So what if crabs are space insects escaped from a science fiction movie, and only guys with special skills can prepare them? That just adds to their mystique.
The practical problem of cooking crabs is easily solved: Butchers and fishmongers all over the county cook them for you, every day. And when you buy crabs, if you ask, these fish merchants will clean and crack them. You still have to get the meat out of the shell, but that is some of the most rewarding work you can do. (There are even some people who say that if a person is too lazy to dig crab meat from the shell, that person isn''t worthy of eating crab meat. But the people who say such things might be a tad arrogant.)
I employ only three preparations. I usually don''t do fancy crab recipes because I''m essentially very lazy. I don''t let that fact deter me.
Cold Crab and Hot Roots
My favorite crab recipe is no recipe. Here''s how to do it:
First, invite a couple of friends over. On the way home, splurge on four crabs ($25-$30). Let the butcher crack them. When you get home, cut some potatoes, carrots, onions and beets into big chunks, put them in a bowl with some olive oil and mix them up with your hands, and put them in the oven at about 375°. Cover and roast for 30 minutes; uncover and roast for another 30 minutes.
Put the plates and wineglasses out and pop a bottle of Chardonnay. (Sauvignon Blanc is often recommended for crab dishes, but Chardonnay works better with this one.) Melt a stick of butter (or two), serve up the veggies, and dump the busted-up crab on a platter in the middle of the table.
It will feel less like a dinner and more like a party.
Singapore Baked Crab
This one is easy, but you need a huge wok. Maybe a friend has one. Put the wok on the burner and crank it up to high. Fill it with two pounds of coarse salt. Leave it there for a long time, until the salt gets very hot. Immerse the crabs in the salt. "Bake" them for about 20 minutes. When they''re done, they are salty and sweet and hot.
My friend Danny, who brought this recipe back from, well, Singapore, serves it with fried noodles and shrimp-in-coconut-sauce and a bunch of other fancy stuff. A green salad will suffice.
Crab and Chanterelle Risotto
Compared to the previous two recipes this one sounds hard. It''s not. It''s just more complicated.
Risotto has a reputation for being too laborious (an opinion held, no doubt, by the same lazy schmucks who won''t crack a crab). It also has a reputation for being gloppy, but that can be easily overcome.
This dish will allow you to "stretch" $5 or $10 worth of crab and $5 or $10 worth of chanterelles-often the two most expensive ingredients in the store-into a luxurious dish that will serve four people.
Warning: This does require a good 35 minutes of discipline and focus. And it requires good timing: the idea is to do three things at once and be ready to sit down the minute you''re done. But it''s really very easy. You will be working three burners and doing a lot of stirring.
You will need one huge chanterelle (or two medium-sized ones-figure a quarter pound for two people), washed, dried and cut into thickish slices. Melt a pat of butter into some olive oil and dump the mushrooms in.
You will also need some fish stock or chicken stock or vegetable stock-or something like that. If you make your own stock, God bless you. If not, you can buy it at a handful of gourmet shops in the county. A bullion cube in water will do in a pinch, as will a can of Health Valley chicken broth generously diluted with water.
Now put a one-quart pot or a deep stainless steel skillet on the stove, melt a pat of butter into some olive oil, and add a cup of Arborio rice. Swish it around, and when every kernel is coated, add two cups of stock (or whatever). Stir for a good 30 seconds.
Stir the mushrooms.
Now set a cutting board as close to the stove as you can, and start peeling crab. Be careful to get the biggest chunks you can, but don''t stress out about it. Put the crab into a bowl and put the shells into a paper bag on the floor, if you want to be practical.
Stir the rice. Keep it at a very slow simmer. As the liquid cooks off, you will want to add more stock-about a half-cup at a time, stirring "constantly," but go ahead and crack the crab while you''re doing it.
After about five minutes of this, cut up five or six cloves of garlic and add it to the mushrooms. Garlic cooks quickly, but you want it to get into that tender mushroom-flesh, so keep the heat down.
Crack crab and stir risotto for another five minutes, then add the crab and the mushrooms to the risotto and stir.
Don''t let the risotto get gloppy. You can prevent this by adding more stock. If you run out of stock, use water. It will be fine.
I like to steam some kale or chard with this, so get that third burner going.
This whole process takes maybe a half-hour; after about 20 minutes, the Arborio will be cooked and the kitchen will smell like a sinful heaven. It''s best if you have room in your kitchen for your friends so you can talk politics or whatever while you''re performing this culinary task.
Important: This dish must be served the moment it''s done. Your friends will think they are eating chunks of sweet crab meat and tender, garlicky chanterelles in a thick, rich rice-sauce, because they will be.
There is also crab quiche, which is just exactly what it sounds like and is as easy as pie. And the famous "Crab Monterey," a Betty Crockerish casserole that involves frozen spinach (Del Monte, I''m sure) and artichoke hearts (Cara Mia) and some crab sprinkled on top.
There''s the whole idea of sprinkling crab on top. Put it on salads, on quesadillas, in enchiladas. Be brave. It won''t bite you.
But if you are too lazy, too fearful or too busy to spend some quality time in the kitchen with your crustacean, there''s always another way to enjoy this sweet bugfruit of the sea. Most of Monterey County''s restaurants serve crab in one form or another. And because Monterey''s top chefs know that we''ve got something good here, crab is often elevated to new heights of toothsome splendor in meals that create rich memories for years to come.