Winter in Northern California means crab season, pure and simple. Two days before the official start of the season I drove out to Bodega Head, where the Dungeness crab traps were stacked 10 feet high on the side of the road. Rough men were pulling into town, doffing caps and preparing to move out to the open sea. Idling tractor-trailers labeled “Spuds Point Crab Company” lined the docks, and the anticipation was heady.
Crab is a versatile creature to cook—there are about a million recipes to choose from, and on top of that you can easily make something up. You can buy crab pre-picked (for a ridiculous sum), but if you’re obsessive-compulsive like I am, there’s nothing more diverting than picking the meat yourself. I always ask the butcher to crack a freshly cooked crab, but then I haul it home and pull out my tools: a skewer, a lobster cracker and a tiny teaspoon. I leave no molecule of crabmeat unplucked from its shell, much to my dog’s dismay.
In the past three weeks I’ve cooked three very different crab dishes, and each is worthy of repeating. Let’s begin with Alice Waters, because who doesn’t want to begin with Alice Waters? You will be surprised to read that this dish comes from her wonderful Chez Panisse Fruit. She once told me that this is her favorite book, and wishes more people would use it; I agree. Her Crab Salad with Meyer Lemon, Endive and Watercress is sweet and bitter and tangy. The endive and crab provide sweet, crunch and pillowy softness. Watercress is bitter, lemon is tangy and Champagne vinaigrette brings it all together. The salad is simple to make, elegant to present and easy to adapt. (No watercress? Use chicory. Or butter lettuce, for God’s sake. And add some avocado for silkiness.)
Next up, I tried my hand at The Sunset Cookbook’s Mendo Crabcakes, taken from Mendo Bistro in Ft. Bragg. Panko breadcrumbs are the key here—they are light and feathery, and don’t weigh down the crab cake the way regular breadcrumbs do. The recipe calls for adding a small amount of them to the crab cake itself (along with an addictive, easy-to-make tarragon aioli), and then to pat some on the outside of the cake before frying. Something I’ve become obsessive about in my cooking is flattening patties (whether the meat, fish or vegetable variety) to a consistent, flat shape—the patty will cook much more evenly, rather than being rare in the middle and well done at the extremities. It’s also important to add enough oil to the pan that the full bottom half fries in it. Trust me.
Lastly, I wanted to get out of my American comfort zone, so I cooked (and promptly slurped up) Andrea Nguyen’s Cellophane Noodles with Crab and Black Pepper from her fantastic tome Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. Wow. Talk about satisfying. Of all three recipes, this is the one I keep thinking about; the one that makes my stomach rumble. The great thing about this recipe is, if you do it exactly as Nguyen instructs, it will be great, and if you don’t, it will still probably be great. I wasn’t able to procure the tomalley and fat from the crab, so substituted an extra egg. I couldn’t find dried wood ear mushrooms, so used a mix of dried mushrooms. I threw in a sliced Serrano pepper for extra spice. Scallions would’ve made a nice addition, or I could have substituted chicken for crab, and added chopped peanuts … the point is, once you’ve mastered how to cook those cellophane noodles, which turns out to be embarrassingly easy, the rest is up to you. However, it’s crab season, so you might as well enjoy it while you can.
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