If you ever needed a reminder of how much good there is in the world -- and these days, who doesn’t? -- just cook a Dungeness crab. It is so easy to prepare; the meat is so sweet and tender; it is so nearly perfect just as it comes in its original wrapper. Surely, some greater power must love us mightily to give us anything that delivers such pleasure and demands so little.
Every year at the holidays my family has a ritual dinner of crab. We sit around and eat as much of it as we possibly can and tell the stories of our year. There is nothing like sharing freshly cooked cracked crab and a great bottle of white wine with your family to remind you of just how fortunate you really are. Sometimes we even do it more than once. That’s how lucky we are.
Basic Dungeness crab couldn’t be easier to prepare: Buy them at the best Asian market close to you and choose the ones that are heaviest for their size and fighting mad when they’re pulled from the live tank. When you get them home, put them in a big pot, cover with water and turn on the heat. Cook them until they turn bright red; when you pull off a back leg, there should be little feathers of meat attached. Rinse them under cold water to stop the cooking and start the cooling.
To clean the cooked crabs, pull away the “spade” at the bottom of shell. Lift off the top shell, rinse out the fat and viscera and pull off the opaque gills. Pull off the legs and use the back of a heavy chef’s knife to crack them -- not too hard, you want the shell to remain intact; you’re just making them easier to peel. Finally, cut the body in half lengthwise and divide the segments between the leg joints. Now eat.
That’s the purest way to serve crab, and that’s how we do it for our big dinners (well, maybe a green salad after and a lemon curd tart for dessert).
But that’s not the only way to cook crab. Last year I had dinner at Russell Moore’s terrific Camino restaurant up in Oakland. Moore specializes in live-fire cooking, and he was offering grilled Dungeness crab that night. To tell the truth, I’d always turned up my snobby little purist’s nose at crab grills before, but I tried it anyway -- I can be broad-minded that way when it comes to eating Dungeness crab.
Honestly, at first bite, I wasn’t totally loving it; I wasn’t used to the sweet flavor of the crab competing with other tastes. But by the time I’d finished half a crab, I was hooked. So I called Moore to find out how he did it. Again, it’s almost embarrassingly easy -- you start with cooked cracked crab and marinate it in an herbal mash. Then you grill it, scraping and turning with a big spatula, until the herb mixture and the edges of the shell start to char.
Grilled crab is particularly good in winters like this one, when finding live crab can be a challenge (a late start to the Northern California and Oregon crabbing seasons plus a series of bad storms in the Bay Area led to a real shortage last week; things should be somewhat improved this weekend, but crab probably won’t be plentiful until after New Year’s Day).
Eating crab grilled this way is a lot like eating Chinese black bean crab: It’s messy, and you probably get almost as much flavor from licking your fingers as you do from the crabmeat. But it’s irresistibly delicious.
You can vary the flavors according to your whim. For me, the mixture that worked best the last time I tried it was mostly chopped parsley and green onion with a heavy dose of coarsely ground fennel seed.
It tasted like a rainy California winter.