Another West Coast favorite is the star of today’s column — the Dungeness crab. These guys are in season starting mid-November and running to summer, and that’s when they’re cheapest and fattest as well. Of course, the market I shop at has them year-round because that’s just the sort of place they are. Dungeness are great because they’re highly meaty, heavy crabs that will amply reward anybody who takes the time to crack those shells.
The best crabs are cooked right after being caught, since they will still be fat and feisty. Crabs that have sat around too long get waterlogged and sluggish. Check that they have hard shells and fight back, that’s the sign of a yummy dinner. For instance, note what happens when I bring the tongs near the little critters in my sink here.
I’m just going to steam these guys in the simplest way possible, since the meat is delicate and best eaten just the way it is. I’ve added a twist to the broccoli rice to help augment that flavor and make it a nicely complementary side dish.
We start with some plump, fresh crabs, as soon off the boat as you can get them. Remember that if you must store live crustaceans for a few hours, never keep them on ice or in fresh water as that will outright kill them. Better to just wrap them in moist paper towels and pop them in the fridge.
Grab your crabs from the back when you’re handling them to avoid getting pinched as much as possible. Some of them will still manage to reach around and grab you, though, so I use a pair of sturdy tongs or wear an oven mitt when I’m handling them. Give your crabs a nice scrubbing with a vegetable brush and clean water. If you’re curious, by the way, most crabs you buy will be males and you can tell by the triangular-shaped patch on their bellies — it comes to a pointed end in males and is rounded in females. Usually females are released again for the purposes of repopulation. If you do get a female, however, the crab eggs inside are very tasty as well.
I like to steam my crustaceans in the shell rather than boil them because it retains more flavor without making the meat soggy. I don’t have a real steamer, however, so I use my large stock pot, a small metal rack, and a metal colander. Here you can see that I’ve filled the pot with a few inches of water and am slowly heating it up. The metal rack (used mostly in rice cookers for steaming) is already in place to keep the food above water. Here I’m adding in a few small bay leaves to give the steam a nice scent.
One of the biggest things to remember about steaming (or boiling, for that matter) seafood is to add some salt to the water so that salt isn’t leached out of the meat while it’s cooking. That is the quick path to rendering your food soggy and bland. I usually go with 2 tablespoons per quart. And to all the wiseass-types who would point out that water vapor does not carry salt, please note that while the condensate would not be salted, the action of boiling water causes all kinds of spraying inside a closed container. The little droplets hit the food and transfer salt (or non-salt) to it. So yeah, that salt does count.
When the water starts to boil, put your crabs in the pot belly-up. This is so the shell can catch the tasty fat drippings as they cook. Cover and steam for 7 minutes per pound of crab. For multiple crabs, go by the average weight per crab, not the total weight of all of them combined. For instance, I’ve got three crabs here weighing about 2 pounds each, so I’d steam the whole lot for about 14 minutes.
Now, crabs don’t usually put up as much of a fight as lobsters, but I still like to weigh down the lid with a filled tea kettle just to make sure they stay inside for that first minute.
After your timer has rung, open up your pot to find bright orange cooked crabs. You’ll want to grab them out with tongs (keep them belly-up) and rinse them under cold water to stop the cooking process as soon as possible. Be very careful, they’re scalding hot. Let them cool off a little before you start shelling them.
Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures of the shelling process because we were really hungry that afternoon. However, this page has a great pictorial of how to shell crabs. I think there’s some good YouTube videos on crab eating as well.
Short version? Pry up that triangular part, stick a finger up the hole it leaves and pry off the whole top shell. You’ll find that a lot of creamy crab fat (if you’ve gotten plump fresh crabs as you were supposed to) has melted and pooled in there. I usually pour that out into a separate container and mix it into the side dish (especially if it’s rice) as flavoring. Or you can slurp it straight from the shell if you’re so inclined. Wash out the yellow stuff in the middle (well, some of those parts are edible, but beginners will probably want to save that for a more adventuresome day). Remove the gills, crack the remaining body in half and you’ll have two racks of legs. You can use nutcrackers and forks to get at the meat in the legs, but it’s also just as easy to use the sharp tip at the end of each leg. You can pretty much eat them as is or with a bit of butter and lemon. Anything else would just overwhelm the taste and texture of the meat.
I mentioned a side dish, right? Right! So I always have some frozen shellfish stock on hand, made from the exoskeletons of previous meals. It is great for flavoring rice, making soups, and otherwise making dishes a bit more interesting. So here is a 2-cup block of shrimp stock being melted into a small pot.
Add to that a handful of frozen broccoli and let it all melt together for a while.
Lastly, I added a cup and a half of pre-cooked white rice. It would have been possible to throw in uncooked rice and let it boil up as well. I poured in the crab fat drippings when everything was well-mixed.
And the result! Quick, fast, easy and makes a great addition to those crab legs. Especially helpful when you’ve got a guy sitting around saying that picking out little pieces of meat isn’t quite a filling meal.
Hmmm. Once again, forgot to take a picture of the plated meal because it was being consumed by the time I had my camera out. Will have to fix that in a future post… 🙂