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THE CALIFORNIA COOK

Here's reason enough to celebrate

This holiday season you won't find perfection wrapped in shiny foil and ribbon, but rather encased in the hard shell of the Dungeness.

November 27, 2002|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

AT my house we celebrate four major holidays at this time of year: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's and the opening of Dungeness crab season. I am willing to concede the possibility that God has made a more perfect food, but I haven't come across it yet.

Here's a typical Dungeness Day menu: Crab. White wine. Maybe a green salad afterward and, if we're feeling particularly indulgent, something like a lemon curd tart to finish.

But none of those other things is necessary. Cold cracked crab by itself, as much as you can eat, is extravagance defined.

Dungeness crabs are big (they're weighed in pounds rather than ounces) and generous (about 25% edible flesh as opposed to 15% in more meager crabs). And the meat comes away in large, buttery flakes that practically melt in your mouth, with a sweet flavor balanced by just a tinge of what wine writers might call "minerality" -- a slightly pointed savory undertone like something you might find in a great white Burgundy.

In every area where crabs grow, people seem to regard their local product as a special treat. I know I have argued the superiority of Dungeness crab from the Chesapeake Bay to the Adriatic Sea. Never once has anyone succeeded in convincing me I'm wrong (though there was that simple dish of cold crab meat dressed with just a whisper of really good olive oil that I had one hot summer night in Venice that came close).

Dungeness crabs are primarily a winter treat, at least in the Lower 48. Traditionally the California harvest begins just before Thanksgiving from Avila Beach, near San Luis Obispo, to San Francisco and gradually progresses north from there. About 80% of the California catch is taken in December and January. Oregon usually starts around the first of December and Washington follows not long after. In British Columbia, the Dungeness harvest doesn't start until April and in Alaska, it's a summer crab.

The Dungeness fishery is considered a model of sustainability. Only male crabs are taken and only when they are at least 6 1/4 inches across the carapace, meaning they are at least 4 years old and already have been sexually active for a couple of years (this is California after all).

Still, the harvest is cyclical, fluctuating for reasons that marine biologists do not completely understand. California had one of the biggest in its history in 1995-96, but since then the catch has been in a steady decline, though predictions for this year are better.

A short leap to the plate

Most crabs are cooked immediately upon being unloaded from the boats. Only a small percentage is sold alive. These can be found in aquarium tanks in upscale groceries and Asian markets.

There isn't much that's simpler than fixing a crab (almost literally, just add water). I've found the best cooking time to be about 15 minutes from the moment the water reaches a boil. Many cooks recommend 20 minutes. I'd err on the long side.

You can overcook a crab -- the meat loses some of its sweetness and turns slightly grainy -- but that is infinitely preferable to undercooking it, which gives it a bitter edge and a slimy texture.

Live crab isn't always better than precooked, though it is almost always cheaper. Early last week I bought two crabs, one live from my local Filipino fish market, the other already cooked from an upscale grocery.

Once they were cold and cracked, it was pretty hard to tell the difference.

This is probably at least in part because the live crab I bought was less than stellar -- it was one of only two left in the tank and was pretty light.

And here's a hint: Shopping early in the week probably is a bad idea since the markets haven't had time to restock after the weekend.

Though the crabs were of roughly similar quality, there was no mistaking the difference in price.

The already cooked one was almost exactly twice as expensive ($9.99 a pound versus $4.99). On the other hand, it was more convenient.

If you're planning a quick feast for two, precooked is probably not a bad way to go. The fish guy at my grocery had some good advice about picking cooked crabs -- they should be heavy and if you have any question, have the store crack the shell for you.

The "butter" inside should be smooth and hold together. Of course, it should smell fresh. And always ask whether they were shipped fresh or frozen; the latter is to be avoided whatever the cost.

In general, a crab will serve four as an appetizer or two as a main course. Only gluttons will eat a whole crab by themselves. But that's exactly what we do on our annual Dungeness Day celebrations.

An intimate feast

As opposed to the other winter holidays, which are all about hospitality and friends, these crab suppers are for immediate family only.

There's something primal about tearing into a platter of crab.

You crack the pieces open with your hands and use your fingers to peel out the meat.

It's so good that even if there's a bare scrap left in the shell, you'll do anything you can to get to it.

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