SAN FRANCISCO — Rather than a kettle of fish, a pot of Dungeness crab might be a more accurate description of the scene this time of year along Fisherman's Wharf. Half a dozen or more vendors tout the Cancer magister practically anytime day or night, so one is never more than a few minutes from savoring this delicacy freshly cooked, solo or dripping with butter or cocktail sauce.
There certainly seemed to be no shortage of these crustaceans the first week of February, and even vendors were commenting on the large size, some weighing close to three pounds. Prices averaged $4.75 a pound for whole cooked crabs, no charge for cracking and cleaning.
Capitalizing on this abundance, Pier 39, the entertainment and shopping complex adjacent to Fisherman's Wharf, held its 7th Annual Crab Festival to raise funds for the March of Dimes. This year's festivities included a recipe contest that drew more than 100 entries.
Fifteen contest finalists prepared their entries for a panel of judges (including this writer). Top honors went to Susan Lehnert of Walnut Creek, Calif., for her Crab-Stuffed Green Chiles. The recipe combines crab meat with green pepper, onion, dill pickle, cucumber and spices. This mixture is stuffed into chiles, which are battered and deep-fried to serve as an hors d'oeuvre.
Sourdough Crab Bearclaws by Alan Tobey of Berkeley was awarded second prize. Tobey used sourdough starter, so indigenous to the area, in pasta dough, and turned what is traditionally a breakfast pastry into an entree.
Returning to Los Angeles, we found current retail prices for fresh Dungeness averaging $5 to $6 a pound, and were surprised when local wholesalers reported supplies of crabs two pounds and over are scarce. Apparently, only in Northern California has the catch reflected an anticipated upswing this year due to the crustacean's natural 10-year cycle.
Dungeness season for Washington, Oregon and Northern California opened Dec. 1, and since the majority is landed in the first two months, accurate estimates are already available. Figures compiled by the West Coast Fisheries Development Foundation in Portland report Oregon had a mediocre catch of 2.6 million pounds in December, down from last year, and Washington reports practically the same amount as a year ago, 1.46 million pounds vs. 1.4 million. Northern California was the bright spot with 5.6 millions pounds reported for December, 1 million pounds more than in 1986.
This is still a far cry from the record catches of the 1950s. Why the bottom fell out in 1961 and 1962 and the crabs have never come back in such abundance is not clear, but theories include pollution, El Nino influence, shifting ocean conditions and natural cycles among parasites and predators. Efforts have been made to increase the population, including a law permiting only male crabs at least 5 3/4 inches to be harvested.
Most of the crabs are caught in round cage-like traps baited with squid or other fish. Openings allow the smaller female and undersized crabs to escape. Fishermen transfer the live crabs from these traps to wooden crates, which can be delivered directly to the vendors along the wharf. Into the huge boiling pots, and 20 minutes later they are ready to crack and clean.
Although the winning recipes were prepared with fresh Dungeness crab, any type of crab meat, fresh or frozen, may be used.
CRAB-STUFFED GREEN CHILES
1 (1-pound, 11-ounce) can whole green chiles
1 pound flaked crab meat
2 tablespoons finely chopped green pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons finely chopped dill pickle
2 tablespoons finely chopped, seeded cucumber
3 1/4 cups crushed soda crackers
3 eggs, beaten
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cloves minced garlic
1 1/4 cups milk
Oil for deep-frying
Discard pulp and seeds from chiles, rinse chiles and drain on paper towels. Combine crab meat, green pepper, onion, dill pickle, cucumber, 1/4 cup crushed crackers, 1 egg, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, cayenne, garlic and 1/4 cup milk in large bowl.
Stuff chiles with crab mixture. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes.
Place remaining 3 cups crushed crackers in flat pan. Combine remaining 1 cup milk, 2 eggs, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper in another pan.
Dip chilled stuffed chiles in egg mixture, then in crackers. Repeat procedure. Deep-fry at 375 degrees until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Slice about 1 1/2 inches thick. Serve with salsa. Makes 40 to 45 hors d'oeuvres.
SOURDOUGH CRAB BEAR CLAWS
1/4 cup sourdough starter
1 1/2 cups unbleached flour, about
1/4 cup water, about
1 cup creme fraiche
1/4 teaspoon dill weed
Meat from 2 medium Dungeness crabs (about 4 cups)
1 tablespoon ancho chile powder
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted