On Christmas Eve morning, an enormous steamer, several huge plastic bins and a stack of plastic tubs filled a parking lot adjacent to Santa Rosa Seafood (946 Santa Rosa Ave.). Fishmonger Mike Svedise, his son Sal and several employees worked nonstop filling orders, transferring cooked crabs from the steamer to an ice water bath, wrestling live crabs and joking with the nonstop queue of shoppers, who chatted with each other.
Before long, 11 crabs were tucked into the trunk of my Beetle and we were on the way to our second stop, for bread and Louis dressing fixings.
A long line snaked from the seafood counter of Oliver's Market on Stony Point Road, while on the other side of the store customers reached for the day's second bake of Costeaux French Bakery's sourdough, which had just arrived.
Spring Hill Butter was on sale.
When did Dungeness crab and sourdough bread become a ubiquitous tradition on Christmas Eve in Sonoma County?
I've been enjoying it for nearly as long as I can remember and often repeat the indulgence on New Year's Eve, but I did not realize so many others did the same thing.
This indulgence leads, almost inevitably, to a Christmas Day and New Year's Day tradition: Crab cakes. I always overestimate how much crab I'll need so that there is plenty left over.
Getting crab cakes just right is challenging. If you make the mixture thick and firm enough that it won't fall apart while cooking, the crab tends to be overshadowed by the ingredients used to bind it all together. Let the crab take center stage and the cakes tend to fall apart.
I opt for the latter and have worked over the years trying to perfect my shaping and frying technique. Yet even when the cakes don't hold together, they are still delicious.
Today's recipes include the current version of my favorite crab cakes, along with an intriguing version I found from among dozens of crab cake recipes. Its simplicity is most engaging.
If you're new to handling our Dungeness crab, you'll find instructions for cooking, cleaning and picking the meat at "Eat This Now," Seasonal Pantry's companion blog, at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.
This is my preferred tried-and-true recipe for crab cakes. I love the combination of the earthy beans and briny crab, punctuated by the voluptuous tart mustard cream. Limes are preferable, but when none are at hand, lemons work well, too. If using limes, use cilantro instead of the parsley called for here.
<b>Crab Cakes with Black Bean Puree and Mustard Cream</b>
Makes 2 to 4 servings
<i>Black bean puree (see Note below)
2 tablespoons organic butter, plus more as needed for frying
1 jalape? or serrano, seeded and minced
1 large shallot, minced
2 celery ribs, minced
Black pepper in a mill
? to 1 teaspoon chipotle powder or ground cayenne, optional
1 large or jumbo egg
? cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon fresh lemon or lime juice
2? cups fresh Dungeness crab meat, preferably body meat, picked over for bits of shells
3 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley
2/3 cup course sourdough breadcrumbs, lightly toasted