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A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine and . . .

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By Dan Clarke

Cracked crab is one of nature’s sweetest bounties. Oh sure, there are crab salads, crab cakes, deviled crab and even crab soufflés, but for me there’s nothing like the simplicity of cracked Dungeness crab, a loaf of sourdough bread and a bottle of beer or a glass of wine.

The Dungeness crab (Metacarcinus magister) lives in colder waters off the Pacific Coast of North America—and nowhere else in the world. Growing up in California, I always thought of it as a particularly San Francisco treat and it has been commercially harvested in the area since 1848. While this shellfish found as far south as the Santa Barbara area of California, commercial crabbing really begins around San Francisco with the greater harvests being found farther northward, extending all the way to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. In recent years I’ve learned that crab fans in Oregon and Washington are just as passionate as those in California.

Crab Feed Smile PicmonkeyLots of smiles at a crab feed in Charleston, Oregon

The season begins in earnest just after Thanksgiving and fresh crab has always been a wintertime treat in my family. Because surprisingly few restaurants offer fresh crab in season, I’ve generally enjoyed mine at home.

Fresh may be a relative term as regards crab. For my taste, a frozen crab is enough different as not to be worth the effort. It promises a lot more than it delivers. However, while I’m happy to take home a cooked fresh crab from the market, maximum flavor is obtained when buying the crab live. It’s generally more difficult to find live crab (Asian markets are a good bet) and often more expensive. Further, you have to deal with dispatching a live creature—boiling him alive, in fact. For the squeamish this could take the edge off the meal.

Dungeness crabs range from about 1-1/2 pounds to slightly over three pounds, with about 20 to 25 percent of that weight edible crab meat. However, denser crabs usually yield la little better meat-to-shell ratio. A large crab will usually feed two persons.

While supermarkets will often have good quality crab at attractive prices (especially early in the season), finding a specialty market where you can talk with your fish seller is a good idea. Cleaning and cracking your crab isn’t all that difficult, but it is a little messy. Ask the fishmonger to show you how he does it. If it’s your first time it’s well worth any extra charge for this service.

Fresh cracked crab may be a sublime experience, but in an elbows-on-the-table sort of way. Delicious, yes. Elegant, no. Use a bib or wear washable clothes. Primary eating Implements are your fingers and maybe a narrow form or pick to get at tender morsels stuck inside shell pieces (I’ve found a claw from one of the smaller legs works best for this task).

You can use a cocktail sauce, but why mask the crab’s delightful—and subtle—flavor? Bowls of mayonnaise and drawn butter and some lemon wedges are sufficient embellishment. Have a large loaf of sourdough French bread at the table. Slice it if you must, but breaking off pieces by hand seems more appropriate.

Now in the matter of beverages: Beer works fine. If you want to stick with the San Francisco theme, have Anchor Steam—a tradition as rich as any in a city rife with them. Otherwise, look for something light and lager-ish.

I’ve always been a littler schizophrenic when it comes to selecting wine to accompany carb in these circumstances. On the one hand, the sweetness of the crab suggests a Riesling. On the other, the crab’s richness might be better complemented by a Chardonnay. Why not open a bottle of each?

This is not a meal to experience on a timetable. Share it around a relaxed table with one or more good friends. They’ll know that their host is warm, witty. And they’ll not mention that you’ve gotten a piece of crab in your hair or have butter dripping down your chin.

Editor’s note: Thanks to Hugh Link of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission for supplying our crab photos.

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