There are very few days if any that excite a West Coast foodie more than November 15th. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, and the local fishing fleet out in full force, the holidays for me are synonymous with the first-caught and best-tasting crab of the season. This year however, the season got off to a later than usual start. The crab fishermen and the seafood buyers could not come to an agreement on the price. For me, and I'm sure many of you, it felt like the first time I was told that Santa isn't real. Disappointment, anger and confusion were just some of the many emotions I was feeling as Thanksgiving came and went with no crab. As if Christmas needed anything extra to boost its popularity, the big holiday had something special up its sleeve this year; for the first time in many years, Christmas 2011 would be the first holiday with fresh local crab.
First harvested in the waters just north of Seattle Washington, the Dungeness crab has been fished commercially along the pacific coast since the 1880s. Basically there are four main geographic areas that Dungeness crab is harvested: California, Oregon, Washington and Canada/Alaska. Crab season in California typically starts November 15th and runs though June. In Oregon and Washington the season starts in December and in Canada/Alaska, crab season is year round. This means you can get fresh crab on the West Coast year round, although after Washington and Oregon close in mid August supply is tight and crab is expensive until November.
Dungeness crab is abundant, given the best rating of sustainability by Seafood Watch. Readily available and affordable, at the peak of the season it can cost a quarter of what lobster does. So there are no excuses why you can't get out there and pick up some fresh local crab and enjoy one of the best tasting seafood out there. Your first question is probably, "Where do I find live crab?" Most people do their shopping at large grocery stores where you see crab behind the seafood counter lined up and ready to go, but those big stores do not have live crab because they are buying precooked or frozen precooked crab. Your best bet is to get as close to the natural habitat of the crab as possible. Yes, I'm talking about the water. In my case, in San Francisco, we a have large waterfront with many piers for the fishing fleet to off load their catch to the local markets. The main area for off loading crab is pier 45, a large where most of the seafood buyers have a stall. You'll need to get there early in the morning -- like 6 am early. Costerella, A La Rocca and Pezzolo Seafood are just a few places to check out. If you get a later start and can't make it to pier 45 that early there are still other options. Alioto-Lazio Fish Company (on Jefferson St. between Leavenworth and Hyde) is a good place to go. They have big saltwater tanks that are stocked full of live crab all season long. Although you may pay a bit more for the crabs here than you will at the pier itself. In many cases it may be the way to go, because unlike pier 45 that deals almost exclusively with restaurants and stores, Alioto-Lazio is set up do deal with individual customers.
Okay, so you've got your live crabs home, now what? It's time to cook them! Its easy, all you need is a big pot, salt, and ice for cooling them down. The bigger the pot the better. You want to make sure that the crab is going to have plenty of room to be fully submerged in the water. You can use whatever salt you want, I recommend using rock salt because it is cheap and like all salts it has its own distinct flavor. The salt does two key things; it gives flavor to the crab and will also help preserve the crab once it is cooked. If you can't eat all your crab in one sitting it will keep in the fridge for up to five days. Fill your pot with water, not too high, remember that when you add your crabs to the pot the water level will rise. Bring the water to a boil and add plenty of salt. If you are using rock salt give the salt a few minutes in the boiling water to fully dissolve. Add the crab to the boiling water, cover and wait for the water to come back to a boil. Once it is boiling again take the cover off and start the timer for 25 minutes. Make sure to keep your eye on the cooking crab because if the temperature gets too hot the water, now mixed with the juices from the crab, will start to boil over and make a big smelly mess on your stove. As the crab is cooking you can get your ice-water bath ready. You can use a large container; again, it has to be enough for the crab to be fully submerged, but a better way is to clean out your sink, plug the drain and fill with water and ice. I like doing it this way for two main reasons: first, the sink is big enough to fully submerge the crab, and second, it makes for an easy clean up. Once your timer goes off, turn the stove off and carefully move your crabs into the ice bath. They will be HOT! You want to make sure to cool them down quickly because this will help the meat slide right out of the shell. If you don't bring the temperature down quickly the shell will stick and make eating your crab much harder to eat and exponentially less enjoyable.
Now that you know how easy and affordable it is to have fresh crab, it's time to get out there and impress your friends and family this holiday season.
This piece was originally published at Kellan's Kitchen.