In Season: How best to serve fresh Dungeness crab
If you’re new to this area, be aware that most people who have lived here for more than a year have a November ritual that you will most likely adopt yourself. And it’s not Thanksgiving.
It is the first day of commercial Dungeness crab season. According to the folks at the Tides Wharf wholesale seafood market in Bodega Bay, where the local fishing fleet brings the crabs it catches in its crab pots, Nov. 15 is the typical first day. This year, it has been delayed off the Sonoma and Central coasts to lower the risk of whales getting entangled in fishing lines. Check with your local seafood purveyor for the opening date.
Most stores will clean and crack cooked crabs at no charge (or the charge is built into the price). The rest is up to you.
For many North Bay families, the ritual involves covering the table with newspapers and setting two big bowls on the table — one for the crab, the other for shells — then laying out crab-cracking crushers that look like crab claws and picking tools that look like dental equipment; pulling a bottle of chardonnay out of the fridge and getting out the wine glasses; steaming the crab until it’s hot; and — finally, triumphantly — tearing into the crab to get at the succulent, elegant, sweet meat inside.
Many people like to dip their crabmeat into butter.
There’s a plain way and a fancy way to prepare the butter. The plain way is to simply melt the butter, pour it into a bowl, and set it on the table at the same time you put the hot crab into one of the big bowls.
The fancy way is to make drawn butter. Place butter in a small saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil it for just one minute, then set the saucepan aside and let the butter settle, undisturbed.
The milk solids will come to the top of the butter and watery whey will collect on the bottom. Skim off the milk solids with a spoon, and pour the clear yellow butter into a serving bowl or several small ramekins, taking care not to include any of the watery whey in the bottom of the pan.
The pieces of hot crab fall into three categories, defined by ease of picking and yield of meat.
The easiest to pick, and with the best yield of meat, are the large legs and claws.
A claw will give you a nice, fat lump of crabmeat. The large legs should be cracked along their length so you can pry back the shell to reveal the large tube of white meat inside. Crabmeat is delicate, and if you hammer and scrape at it, it will fall into little pieces that may get mixed with shell.
Be super careful not to let any shell get into your crabmeat. It’s hard and annoying.
The next category is the body of the crab, minus the head and internal organs that were removed when the beast was cleaned and cracked. The body comes in two halves joined in the middle. Using both hands, crack these two halves apart for much easier picking.