I love San Francisco even though a lot of very strange culinary goings-on take place there from time to time, such as chocolate-covered garlic buds, blue corn sorbet and cactus salad.
However, there is one San Francisco tradition of which I heartily approve: the annual Crab Festival, held on Pier 39, adjacent to Fisherman's Wharf.
I hold the Crab Festival (which is actually a crab cooking competition) in very high esteem. Although I must admit that the bulk of my admiration is reserved for the panel of gastronomic stalwarts who taste and select the winning entries yearly, rather than the teams of bright-faced chefs who prepare them. I was once a judge at the crab contest and my alimentary canal has never been quite the same since.
The sequence of the contest is a blur but I recall that the actual judging took place in an elegantly appointed dining room. As panelists were ushered in, each was teamed by a random selection of names chosen from two baskets.
Pencil, Fork at the Ready
I was paired with a portly writer from Seattle. Together, equipped with pencils and forks, we worked our way through the room, tasting 29 variously seasoned versions of spiced crab in half an hour.
After spiced crab I was assigned a new partner and yet another category: chef's choice. Dishes that ran the culinary spectrum from crab pie to nouvelle crab fingers. One entry, a warm porringer of Dungeness crab--swimming in cream and cheese--particularly struck my taste buds. I was about to slurp a second helping when my partner (the food editor of a large newspaper) whispered: "Stop," taking my arm firmly. "Aside from the calories in the dish--which frankly my dear, you do not need--it will make you sick."
On a Collision Course
I wish I'd heeded her advice. But I did not. Instead I licked the spoon, then volunteered to judge 25 remaining crab Louis salads on my own. Speak of gastronomic collision courses.
When the winners were finally tallied, called in and toasted, every jurist except me raised a tulip of Champagne. I, greener than my name, made my congratulatory sip with a soda bicarbonate.
Crab au gratins come and go, but you will never taste a better version than the following handiwork of L.A. chef Raymond Marshall. CRAB MEAT AU GRATIN
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1 small clove garlic, minced
1/4 pound mushrooms, sliced
1 teaspoon chopped cilantro
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 1/4 cups creme fraiche
1 tablespoon flour
1 pound cooked crab meat
1/2 cup shredded Jack cheese
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in green onions and cook 1 minute. Add garlic, mushrooms and cilantro. Cook, stirring often, 5 minutes. Stir in pepper and creme fraiche.
Combine 2 tablespoons softened butter with flour in small bowl until smooth. Stir into creme fraiche mixture and simmer over medium heat until thickened.
Heat broiling unit. Stir crab meat into saucepan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until crab is heated through, about 8 minutes.
Transfer crab mixture to 1-quart casserole or individual ramekins. Sprinkle with Jack and Parmesan cheeses. Place under broiler to lightly brown. Serve immediately. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Note: Creme fraiche is available in most gourmet food shops. However, to make it, heat 1 1/4 cups whipping cream mixed with 2 teaspoons buttermilk (do not use ultra-pasteurized) until lukewarm (90 degrees). Pour into sterilized jar, leaving top loose. Cover in towel and let stand until thickened, 10 to 12 hours in warm weather, 20 or more hours in cold. Store, tightly covered, in refrigerator.
The spiced crab entry from chef Mario Rotti of Princess Cruises won the Crab Festival's grand prize (Maitre Chef de Cuisine) and it deserved every kudo received. SPICED CRAB
1 1/4 pounds King crab legs, cooked
3 tablespoons wine vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons English dry mustard
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 small clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
1 cup unsalted butter, melted
With sharp heavy scissors, carefully cut crab legs lengthwise, without piercing meat. Remove crab meat in 1 piece. Cut into 2-inch-long segments.
Combine vinegar and dry mustard in small bowl. Combine bread crumbs, garlic, oregano, hot pepper sauce, salt, pepper and parsley in medium bowl. Mix thoroughly.
Lightly coat crab pieces with vinegar-mustard mixture. Roll in bread crumb mixture. Place on lightly buttered, oven-proof serving dish. Bake at 400 degrees 10 minutes. Serve with melted butter. Makes 4 appetizer servings.