Did someone say crabs?

Am I the only misguided Washingtonian who believed Dungeness crabs hail exclusively from the Dungeness Spit, about two hours north of Seattle?

How myopic of me. It turns out Dungeness crabs scuttle up and down the West Coast, and San Francisco has its own rich history with the crustacean. Have you heard of the city’s famed seafood stew, the cioppino? Best served with a hunk of sourdough bread, this hearty tomato broth-based concoction of Dungeness crab, clams, shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels, and fish is said to have originated in the late 1800s with Italian fishermen in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.

As the story goes, “Cioppino” was derived from the Genoese word for “chopped” or “to chop” the fishmongers’ leftovers for the daily collective soup pot. Or my favorite urban legend, which claims the name came from a heavily Italian-accented cook asking the fishermen to “Chip in, no?” At any rate, San Francisco’s quintessential everything-but-the-shark-fin stew was born.

Fresh from the dock

Fate helped me straighten out my facts. Two weeks ago, by sheer luck, my mom and I found ourselves in Half Moon Bay mere days before the commercial Dungeness crab season opened. Curiosity led us into conversation with fishermen loading their boat with crab pots, line, and neon-orange buoys.

“Should be a good season,” one fisherman said. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle agreed.

Say no more. On my official day off between jobs last week*, I pointed the 4Runner straight back to Half Moon Bay to collect my dinner from the docks.

Fog had rolled into the Pillar Point Harbor by 4 p.m., the early dusk pierced by shouting fishermen as they shoveled their catches into enormous holding tanks and drove forklifts heavy-laden with crab pots for the distant dawn. What I saw was a family business—mostly men and boys dressed in rubber wellies and yellow coveralls. “Is your homework done?” I heard one dad ask his grade-school-aged son, as if they were in the living room instead of the back of a trawler.

I met a few other dockside virgins, wild-eyed and verging on desperate, hands clutching an empty ice chest.

“Which boat is selling? For how much?”

“$3 per pound? No way!”

Then off they’d hustle. Fresh Dungeness crab on the third day of the season will do that to you. Eleven dollars later with two crabs in hand, I too was grinning ear to ear.

Opting to tackle cioppino another day, Mike and I steamed our prizes, making for an unadorned, unforgettable meal. Part of why it was so unforgettable is that we don’t own any crab picks or crackers, a detail we overlooked until after the crabs were in the pot. Fortunately the handle of a can opener and a pair of hemostats works in a pinch—or in a pincher, you could say.

Dinner time!

Tonight’s recipe is courtesy of someone named A.J. from San Francisco on Yelp, who posted these instructions back in 2006; they still steered me in the right direction last week.

Boat-Fresh Dungeness Crabs

Adapted from A.J. on Yelp

Annually, the best crabs are to be found at the start of the season (approximately mid-Nov.) but things are still looking pretty good in the dead of winter. Although the official season goes well into late spring, it’s mostly a downward slope. Earlier—both in the season and in the day—is almost always better.

  1. Get over to Princeton by the Sea (Pillar Point Harbor) in Half Moon Bay.
  2. Bring a cooler with some ice and pick your favorite boat.
  3. Get your crab straight out of the ocean.
  4. Go home to the kitchen.
  5. Stick the crabs in the freezer upside-down for a couple of minutes (just so the crabs can take a nap… they won’t be there for long). Stress-free crabs are tastier crabs.
  6. Fire up a stockpot big enough to hold your catch, and only put in enough water to steam the crabs. I go with plain salted water—salty as the sea that they came from.
  7. Toss the crabs in and let them steam for about 12 minutes depending on the size. You do not want to overcook them. While they cook, make drawn butter and curry mayo (see below) if you haven’t done it ahead of time.
  8. When crabs are done, take ‘em out, break them down, and eat them (and don’t waste the crab fat in the big shell!). Serve with drawn butter and curry mayo for dipping.
  9. Revel in pure bliss.

Drawn Butter
Microwave or melt butter in a saucepan on the stove. Skim off the milk solids that form on top. Serve hot.

Curry Mayo
Take the yolk of the freshest egg you can find, add a squeeze of lemon, a bit of Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper and whisk together. Start adding oil (something neutral like canola is better than olive oil) a little at a time and whisk constantly until it’s emulsified. When the mayo starts to form and is no longer a runny sauce, you can increase the amount of oil that you add. Going slow at the start will ensure that the mayo doesn’t break. When it all looks like mayo and tastes like mayo, add a smidge of curry powder. It should taste mostly of mayo with just a hint of curry. It’s a great sauce that won’t overpower the sweet, delicate crabmeat.

* Oh yes, did I mention the news? I got a new job! Looks like the Lucky Southwest Salad did the trick.