Popular Alternative to Dungeness Crab

Cronin and Johnson are co-authors of "The California Seafood Cookbook."

It would be nice if we could eat fresh Dungeness crab all year. Unfortunately, it's not possible. The California season is closed June 1 through Nov. 7 and although air-freighted crabs do arrive from farther north, supplies are diminishing and sometimes irregular. Fortunately, there is an increasingly popular alternative: the rock crab.

Rock crabs are generally smaller than Dungeness, seldom reaching more than one pound, although they are equally flavorful. Because rock crabs have never been heavily fished in California, the season is open all year and good-size populations are found along our entire coast. Of the three local varieties, two have red shells covered with purple spots. The third, called yellow crab, is yellow-brown in color. All three have large black-tipped claws, which closely resemble those of the highly regarded stone crab of Florida.

Southern California supports a fairly extensive rock crab fishery with crabs being sold whole cooked or live. Fifty percent of the meat is in the claws, which are sometimes sold separately. Northern California has no commercial fishery, and the rock crab is only the focus of a sport fishery. A simple ring net or other crab trap and some bait should yield plenty of crabs off any jetty or pier in California.

Creole Marinated Fresh Crab is a dish that Mark Miller served at the Fourth Street Grill in Berkeley. The recipe appeared in "Cooking With the New American Chefs" by Ellen Brown (Harper and Row: 1985). CREOLE MARINATED FRESH CRAB

6 to 8 crabs

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 bunch parsley, finely chopped

Juice of 1/2 lemon

2 tablespoons oregano leaves

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

Salt, pepper

3/4 cup finely diced celery

12 finely chopped pickled Italian peppers

4 whole canned pimientos, chopped

Lettuce leaves

Cook crabs in boiling salted water until done, about 6 to 8 minutes. Crack claws and pull out meat. Combine garlic, parsley, lemon juice, oregano, olive oil, vinegar and salt and pepper to taste in jar with tight-fitting lid. Shake vigorously. Mix crab, celery, peppers and pimientos with dressing and marinate in refrigerator several hours. Serve on bed of lettuce leaves. Makes 6 to 8 first-course servings.

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