Dungeness crabs are a West Coast delicacy, beloved for their tender, slightly sweet meat. Since the late 1800s, the crabs have been commercially harvested and hauled into ports along the Pacific coast, from Alaska's Aleutian Islands to Point Conception, California. Growing up in the Bay Area, I always looked forward to the special evenings when my family would dine on Dungeness crab. Everything about those dinners felt royal -- wide dinner plates, steaming whole crabs, cracked in half, and little ramekins filled with warm, melted butter -- plus, I was allowed to eat with my hands! My parents and I still enjoy crab every year on Christmas Eve, and it still feels like a meal fit for a queen.
Part of the Dungeness' allure comes from its seasonal availability. In order to maintain a healthy population of crabs year after year, fishermen are only allowed to catch crabs from mid-November till June, though most of the sizeable crabs are caught by the end of February. Catching female crabs is always forbidden, and for the 2013-14 season, there is a new regulation that limits the number of crab traps allowed per boat. This rule will hopefully prevent large boats with thousands of traps from collecting all the crabs during the first few weeks of the season. Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, a program that rates the overall sustainability of various fish and shellfish, considers Dungeness crab to be a "best choice."
When buying Dungeness crab, freshness is of utmost importance. Look for live crabs at reputable fish markets or Asian markets, and choose the spunkiest crab in the tank. To cook the crab, simply drop it in a pot of salted boiling water and leave it there for twelve to fifteen minutes, depending on the size of the crab. It's done when the shell turns bright orange-red. If you buy an already cooked crab, most fishmongers will clean it for you, but it's a simple enough process to do at home. Start by flipping the crab over on his back, then pry off the spade-shaped piece at the bottom of his shell. Afterwards, you should be able to lift away the entire center shell. Remove the grey lungs and rinse the crab under water. Voilà! You are now ready to serve your crab. Chardonnay, a sourdough baguette, and lemon wedges are the usual accompaniments, but there are countless ways to enjoy this Pacific treasure.
Dungeness Crab Salad with Lemon Aïoli
Freshly boiled crab is a treat on its own, but crab meat dressed up with lemon aïoli and served with tender greens is exquisite.
Serves 4 as a first course
3 small cloves garlic
1 large egg yolk
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 lemon, for juicing
8 ounces Dungeness crab meat
1 cup baby arugula
2 heads romaine lettuce, outer leaves removed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pound the garlic and ½ teaspoon salt in a mortar and pestle. Alternatively, you can use the back of a large knife to smash the mixture, pounding until it is a smooth paste.
Crack the egg yolk into a small bowl. Whisk the yolk gently but constantly while pouring in a few drops of the olive oil. (To prevent the bowl from moving around while you whisk, place it on a folded kitchen towel.) As the oil and yolk emulsify, continue to whisk and to add more oil in a very thin stream, until you've added all the oil. The mixture will be thick. Thin it by stirring in a generous squeeze of lemon juice. Taste for seasoning and add more lemon juice, if you like. Stir in the garlic paste and several grinds of pepper.
Gently toss together the crab meat, arugula, and 2/3 of the lemon aïoli. Arrange a handful of the romaine on each plate. Mound the crab salad atop the romaine, and serve the remaining aïoli on the side for dipping. Enjoy with a glass of white wine and lots of toasted bread.