Seasonal pantry: The season for fresh Dungeness crab
With mini-crab Louis on the Thanksgiving table, the song of the evening could have been “Oh, Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, despite its being an Easter song. What a joy it is to have fresh Dungeness crab on the table when it should be, at the start of the winter holiday season. Everyone was nearly silent as they tucked into the ambrosial dressing and the cool succulent crab piled atop a few torn leaves of iceberg lettuce, the most traditional version of one of the world's best salads.
“I thought it was dinner,” one guest commented as we moved on to roasted turkey, sourdough stuffing, smashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, roasted squash, and braised fennel.
It certainly could have been. It's one of those things that, as you eat it, it is hard to imagine anything ever tasting better.
Local markets have had Dungeness crab from California waters for $5.99 a pound.
Commercial crabs from Sonoma and Mendocino counties are still off limits because of continuing concern over levels of domoic acid in the meat.
One way to enjoy crab is with another seasonal luxury that will soon be gone, olio nuovo, just-pressed olive oil from the 2016 harvest. All you need is fresh crab, cooked, chilled, and picked, some fresh oil from your favorite producer, a bit of flake salt and black pepper in a mill. Add some hot hearth bread alongside and a bottle of bubbly and you'll forget your troubles, at least during the indulgence. It's a perfect December distraction.
The best way to be certain your crab is exactly as you like it is to buy it live and cook it yourself, which is not at all difficult. If you've never done it before, visit “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com for detailed instructions. You'll also find links to recipes from this column's archives, including crab vichyssoise, crab bisque, crab tostadas, Asian-style marinated crab, crab and grapefruit salad, crab cakes with black bean purée, cold crab with hot pasta, and more.
It's also fine to buy cooked crab, which you can usually have cleaned for no extra charge. If you're in a time crunch, this is the way to go. And then, well, just don't do too much to it. Appreciate our delightful Dungeness for what it is, sweet, succulent, briny, and delicious. If you like to add crab to more complex dishes, do so at the very end of cooking, with the crab on the heat just enough to heat it through. This will preserve its texture and flavor, which can turn fishy if it is cooked for too long.
There are countless variations of crab Louis and nearly as many different versions of its dressing. This one is the simplest, the most traditional, and, to my palate, the best, as it is all about the crab itself and its ethereal dressing, made lighter and more delicate than Thousand Island dressing by the addition of freshly whipped cream. To make the salad, use three large crabs and the outer leaves of one head of Iceberg lettuce.
Classic Louis Dressing
Makes about 2 cups (6 to 8 servings)
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup chili sauce
1 cup homemade or best-quality mayonnaise
6 green onions (scallions), white and green part, trimmed and cut into thin rounds
2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley
- Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper in a mill
1 teaspoon Sriracha, Crystal, Tabasco or other hot sauce
Pour the cream into a deep bowl and use a balloon whisk to whip it until it forms soft peaks. Add the chili sauce and mayonnaise and use a rubber spatula to fold into the whipped cream. Do not overmix.
Fold in the onions and parsley. Add the lemon juice and sprinkle several pinches of salt into it so that it dissolves. Add the hot sauce, fold, taste, and correct for both salt and heat. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
Here, Meyer lemons, at their peak in winter, punctuate fresh crab with their beautiful acidity. Enjoy a bone-dry sparkling wine alongside.
Dungeness Crab with Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
Serves 2 to 4
2 freshly cooked Dungeness crabs, cleaned and chilled
1 Meyer lemon, preferably organic (see Note below)
1 garlic clove, crushed with the flat side of a knife blade
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives or minced Italian parsley
- Black pepper in a mill
- Sourdough hearth bread, hot
Pick the crab meat from the shells and put it into a medium bowl. Cover and refrigerate.
Cut the lemon in half and remove any seeds. Chop the lemon and put it into the work bowl of a food processor or a tall narrow container that will hold an immersion blender. Add the garlic, salt, and olive oil and either pulse or operate the immersion blender until smooth and creamy. Taste and correct for salt.