Julia Child, James Beard and Pacific Northwesterners agree that our local crab is king. And the dead of winter is when it’s at its magical best.
ALL CRAB IS good crab. The small, mild blue crab is a treasure, best eaten in large numbers off a newspaper-covered East Coast picnic table in unreasonably humid weather, accompanied by lots of cold beer. King crab is to be saluted for its snowy richness and the otherworldly beauty of its lanky, creepy sea-spider legs. Snow crab and rock crab are both excellent, too, if you can get them.
But Dungeness is the best. At its freshest, Dungeness crab tastes only as oceanic as the wind off the water, more delicate and closer to sweet than anything from the bottom of the sea should imaginably be.
As a Pacific Northwest native, I might have a regional bias on this point. But Dungeness was Julia Child’s favorite, too — the famously jovial, generous giant of French cookery reportedly pulled rank in public only one time, to cut to the head of a Dungeness crab line. James Beard, alongside a discussion of the multifarious virtues of other kinds of crab in his “Theory and Practice of Good Cooking,” declared Dungeness “the most distinctive of all … It is sheer, unadulterated crab heaven.”
Its scientific name, Metacarcinus magister (formerly Cancer magister), means, majestically, “the master crab.” The name Dungeness comes from a sandy, driftwood-strewn spit at the top of the Olympic Peninsula, between Seattle and Victoria, B.C., as the crow flies. The crab itself is found all along the West Coast, down to California and up to Alaska. (Child was from California; Beard an Oregonian — they might be biased, too.) The Northwest’s prime crab season coincides happily with the holidays, and a Dungeness supper makes a gloriously messy Christmas or New Year’s Eve tradition.
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One can, of course, enjoy crab in a variety of formats. Beard was partial to crab Louie salad, which has disputed but probably Pacific Northwest origins. At its best, it’s a pile of crab meat on a bed of fresh, crunchy, cool lettuce and other vegetables, with a creamy dressing that could potentially have a kick. I ordered one of these at Shuckers recently and got a listless salad with hard tomatoes, limp grilled asparagus, rubbery overboiled egg halves, sweetish Thousand Island dressing and a modicum of sad shreds of crab, nary a lump of meat to be seen. The golf-ball-sized crab croquettes at this same institution possessed a notably hard carapace and a gummy-textured interior with all the appeal of wet cat food. They tasted vaguely crab-ish.
A crabcake is a funny thing, insofar as the closer it gets to being entirely composed of 100 percent lump crab meat, the better it is, with a quick sear offering a rich, buttery little bit of crunch. “The World’s Best Dungeness crab Cake” at Chandler’s Crabhouse comes in an oddly tall, cylindrical form, reducing the sear to a few square inches on top and bottom. It was rife with interruptively still-crunchy pieces of both green and yellow bell pepper; it was mushy, with only one morsel of whole crab meat to be found.
A lobster-roll-style crab roll can be enjoyable, but the buttery bread — and, often, a surfeit of mayo — can easily overwhelm the delicate crab meat, where more muscular lobster stands a chance.
You probably see where I’m going with this: Dungeness crab deserves the respect of standing, just boiled or steamed, on its own. You can get one at a restaurant, served on a silver tray and helpfully cracked for you. You’ll pay dearly for it, and you’ll miss the fun of the trip to Uwajimaya or Mutual Fish, the crabs rustling on the way home, getting out the big speckled enamel pot, saying thanks as you drop them in and bang on the lid. For a native, pulling the crab open, then eating a bit of the fat and the tomalley (its liver and its pancreas — yum!) as you clean it is part of the ritual. (For an outsider, this might just be disgusting.) The single-minded labor of picking the meat from a crab might feel like a pleasant, temporary, wholesale addiction. The messiness brings people together. Anyone who sacrifices an especially nice piece of lump meat to a companion earns a special place in their heart forever.
I like my crab either just plain — a whole piece pulled out of a claw is such a pure trophy to admire and engulf — or dipped in melted butter. I was even a purist about the latter, allowing maybe only the addition of a squeeze of lemon, until this past Valentine’s Day, when it so happened that David Tanis’ recipe for seared scallops with ginger-lime butter had just run in The New York Times. Something in me was able to see that this could be a good thing to dip pieces of crab into, and I made some small adjustments to taste, and lo and behold, it was the best Valentine’s supper ever.
It wasn’t the best Dungeness crab I’ve ever had, however. If you’re lucky enough to have a boat, or a friend with a boat, to take crabbing on Puget Sound, you’ve probably had a lot of high-water-mark crab experiences — the reduction of the time between the crab scuttling around in the cold, cold depths and going into your mouth is key to how purely marvelous it tastes. Life has not seen fit to provide for me in this way, though I do own a crab pot; an aspirational possession, it has never been used.
The best Dungeness crab I’ve ever had was going on 10 years ago, out at La Push, inside a tiny cabin at the Quileute resort in the dead of winter. It was our first weekend trip together. The day before, we’d walked through the quiet town’s gray day and found somebody kind enough to tell us where to get some crab — down at the docks the next afternoon, at the hour when the boats came back in. “Bring a box or a bag,” the man said helpfully. We returned at the appointed hour and watched dumbfounded as the tribal fishermen unloaded huge crates teeming with crabs, more crabs than the greediest mind could possibly imagine.
Finally, we approached and asked whether we could buy some. A $20 bill got us four beautiful Dungeness crabs — aw, make it five, why not, the guy said.
Back at the cabin, it got dark fast, and the wind and rain beat against the windows. Inside, we cooked our crab bounty, pretty much delirious with joy, and then, by candlelight, we ate and ate and ate. That’s the night we first said we loved each other. The next day, we had so much left over, we made huge crab omelets (crab rules were meant to be broken). A few years later, he gave me the crab pot. Someday, maybe, there’ll be a boat.
For crab, scallops, life in general
3 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons peeled, grated fresh ginger
Juice and zest of ½ lime
Pinch (or more, to taste) cayenne
Dash (or more, to taste) shichimi togarashi (Japanese 7-spice mix, available at Uwajimaya)
1. Melt butter in a small pan, then stir in the other ingredients.