Season for Dungeness Crab
The local Dungeness crab season opens just in time for the holiday season, and for Bay Area old timers—and newcomers, too—it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving or Christmas without Dungeness crab on the table.
Tom Sancimino, who with his brother Steve owns the venerable Swan Oyster Depot Fish Market and Restaurant on Polk Street in San Francisco, says, “Everybody wants Dungeness crab—it’s a San Francisco tradition. People come from all over the Bay Area to buy it—they’ve been buying it from here for 100 years.”
Steve and Tom’s family has been selling crab since 1946, having taken over from the previous owner who started the business in 1912.
Not being a native Bay Area person, my first initiation into the must-have Dungeness crab world was when my second husband and I were invited to his parents’ home in Lafayette for Christmas Day dinner, along with his six siblings and their spouses. We were all asked to bring a couple of Dungeness crabs. Crabs for Christmas? I was appalled. Christmas dinner in my life was standing rib roast or glazed ham and all the sides.
To me, crab was walk-away snack food you bought at Fisherman’s Wharf, not a holiday meal. However, since then I have become dedicated to the must-have-Dungeness-crab-forthe- holidays mentality and so have my children. Furthermore, not just any crab will do: It must be Dungeness, and it must be local, not from the coastal waters of Washington or Oregon.
As Tom Sancimino tells it, “Our supply here is smaller, but our crabs are better.” Maybe that’s why the big boats, with a 100 or more crab pots per boat, come down from the Pacific Northwest to fish the waters off our coast.
“Yeah, it’s been going on for years,” Tom said when I asked him about this fishing incursion. “That’s just part of the way it is in crab season.”
There are plenty of regulations, too, about taking Dungeness crab that I learned firsthand when I went out on a crabbing boat. First thing to learn was how to identify the males from the females, the deckhand told us. No females are to be kept. Picking up one of the crabs, he turned it over, pointing out a rounded belly flap referred to as the apron.
“That’s the sign of a female. A male’s is pointed, more like an arrowhead. Back she goes,” he said, as he tossed the crab overboard. Then the males had to be measured. “Anything over 5. inches we keep; anything under goes back.” He pulled out a metal crab-measuring tool, a sort of short ruler, and measured the crab in his hand at its widest point.
Picking my own live crab out of the crab pots was a great experience, but it is not all that easy to get out on the water yourself, and I’ve only done it once. So, what to look for when shopping for crab?
LIVE OR COOKED?
When shopping for crab, if you are choosing cooked, it should feel heavy in your hand for its size, meaning it has solid meat development and it should smell sweet, never fishy, nor should it smell of ammonia—both sure signs that the crab is past its prime.
If you would rather start with live crab and cook them yourself, choose a fishmonger you trust. Live crabs should be active.
COOKING LIVE CRAB
Fill a big pot 2/3 full of water. Add about 1/4 cup of salt to the water. For spicier crabs, you may add about 1/2 lemon per crab, a bay leaf and combinations of mustard, coriander and dill seeds; and crushed red pepper to the water. Bring to a rolling boil.
To pick up the crab, grab it from the back, putting your thumb firmly on the top and your fingers underneath on the belly. Or use tongs.
Drop the crab into the boiling water. Bring back to a boil and then reduce the heat to maintain a slow boil for 20 minutes. Be careful not to allow the water to boil over the sides of the pot.
In the meantime, fill the sink or a large pot or basin with ice and water. After 20 minutes, remove the crab to the ice bath and let stand 10 to 15 minutes before cleaning and cracking. The ice helps to stop the cooking, and causes the meat to pull away from the shell, making for easy cleaning. After the ice bath, the crabs may be refrigerated for up to 24 hours before cleaning and cracking, or cleaned and eaten right away.
To clean the crab, break off the legs by twisting them at the joint closest to the body and set them aside.
Place the crab body on its back and, with the heels of your hands, press down on each side of the shell until it cracks down the back. Pull off each half-shell, then pry up the tail flap, pull it back, and twist it off.
Turn the crab over and clean off the spongy gills, referred to as the “dead man’s fingers,” and discard. Pinch the mouth and mandibles and pull them off and discard.
Remove the soft, grayish-yellow mass of “crab butter’’ from the body cavity and from the interior of the shell, and reserve this to use in dipping sauces, if desired. It is deliciously rich and unctuous, although not to everyone’s taste.
Rinse the body well under cold water and break it in half, if you wish.
Use a crab cracker or nutcracker to crack each segment of the legs and claws at the joint, being careful not to crush the meat, then place on a platter with the body.
Serve with drawn butter and lemon, a spicy aioli, cocktail sauce or any other sauce you prefer.
WHAT’S IN SEASON in Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties
DECEMBER, JANUARY, FEBRUARY
Cima di Rapa
(Italian Sprouting Broccoli)
Green Garlic (Feb.)