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In Season: How best to serve fresh Dungeness crab

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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.

Each half has four chambers full of meat, separated by tough, thin flaps of shell.

Try breaking off the chambers one at a time and getting the meat out in large, satisfying lumps. After you’ve done a few crabs, you’ll get a sense of the anatomy of the halves and become expert at picking them.

The third category is the small legs. There isn’t much meat in them, but there’s enough to warrant the work of getting it out.

Or toss them into a pan of water and boil for 5 or 10 minutes, then let this liquid cool and freeze as a base for your next seafood bisque or soup.

Are crabs safe to eat? For sure, unless one of the rare seawater algae blooms happens. These algae produce a neurotoxin called domoic acid that crabs ingest when they eat the algae.

Government agencies constantly monitor for these algae blooms, which are rare but dangerous if they do occur. Crabbing is then shut down until the algae dissipates. Mercury levels in our crab are low, according to the EPA, and within acceptable limits.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program rates our local Dungeness crab as “Good Alternative,” one step below “Best Choice.”

The stocks are not overfished, but there are concerns about high fishing levels. In all locations, management was rated effective overall.

...

This recipe is from Naomi Tomky’s brand new (and excellent) book, “The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook,” published by Countryman Press. This is for Dungeness crab. As Naomi says, “Leave the Old Bay crab spice mix alone. This ain’t Maryland.”

Crab Cakes with Chive Aioli

Makes 3 to 4 servings

For the Crab Cakes:

— Meat from 1 large Dungeness crab

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 cup breadcrumbs or panko

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

3 scallions, sliced into thin rounds

1 tablespoon stone-ground mustard

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 lemon, in wedges

For the Chive Aioli:

¼ cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon chopped chives

2 garlic cloves, mashed through a garlic press

For the crab cakes: In a bowl, mix together the crabmeat, egg, breadcrumbs, Worcestershire sauce, scallions and mustard.

Form the mixture into golf-ball-sized circles, then flatten them a little to about ¾-inch thickness.

Spread the remaining breadcrumbs on a plate and dip both sides of the cakes into them for an extra coating. Refrigerate the cakes for about 20 minutes. Make the chive aioli while the cakes chill.

When the cakes are chilled, place the butter in a pan over medium-high heat.

Place the cakes in the butter so they don’t touch, and cook until they are golden brown and crispy, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook on the other side for 2 minutes.

Top each cake with a small dollop of the chive aioli, and serve with lemon wedges on the side.

For the chive aioli: Mix the ingredients together.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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