When it comes to food, I usually take it in strides. Most days I’m whimsical. I cook whatever I have laying around the kitchen mixed with some seasonal vegetables. Sometimes, I’m not so decisive and I can’t even figure out what to eat for dinner, and I spend yet another night with a big bowl of popcorn.
But crab is an exception. I look forward to the crab season every year. It’s one of those foods so marinated in nostalgia that no adulterant or flavor could conceal its triggers: the briny aroma of the Puget Sound on an early morning, the pink-orange sun rising over blackish Olympic Mountains, severing white-grey cloud-wisps; the jubilee and cramps and cold, wet fingers while reeling up the crab pots, in anxious hope of trapping a treasure; and, the jitters and eagerness in maneuvering around the claws to get the crab at just the perfect angle so as to clench it, jiggle it out, and drop it in the cooler.
Crabbing isn’t only my tradition, though. It’s a tradition of this whole region called Cascadia. We have festivals for them in towns small and large. We serve them from aerated tanks at supermarkets, on ice from the farmers markets, and on a plate or in a bowl at restaurants. But the most memorable way for me, and for many others, is scattered on newspaper with lots of butter and lemons.
A NOTE ON THE “BOIL”
You’ll find many “crab boil” recipes that look like copies of “crayfish boils” or some other “boil” rooted in the Southern tradition: cayenne pepper, Old Bay Seasoning, sausages, loads of garlic and onion–you get the idea. That’s totally fine. Sometimes I like mine “a gallega” with some glugs of olive oil and a hefty sprinkling of spicy smoked paprika.
But I don’t do my crab boil like that, and here’s why:
First, those strong, pungent and piquant flavors pair great with crayfish because (in my opinion) the flavor of crayfish is so mild, sometimes bordering on muddy (in the way catfish can be). Dungeness and Red Rock Crab, on the other hand, are very flavorful on their own.
Second, these crabs yield more meat than crayfish. There is no need to pair them with other proteins like sausage. Plus the meat on crabs is chunky.
And, third, I love the flavor of crab. I want to eat crab. Yeah, I’ll fill up on corn, potatoes and bread. But I want to wash it all down with the sweet, savory, fragrant flavor of crab.
All that said, there are some Southern boil characteristics I like. Actually, two: corn and potatoes. The corn works because it lightly sweetens the cooking broth. The potatoes work so well because they soak up some of the salt from the seawater (or salted water). These, along with some aromatics and a squeeze of sour, produce, in my experience, the tastiest and “purest” Dungeness and Red Rock crab meat.
For the broth:
- A few gallons of seawater, preferably that which the crabs were caught in (ratio: 2 Tbsp. salt to each litre of water)
- 2-3 whole Dungeness or Red Rock Crabs, alive (1.2 – 1.8 kg.)
- 7-8 small red potatoes, whole (600 g.)
- 2-3 ears of sweet corn, chopped into three pieces each (500-750 g.)
- 3 bay leaves
- 9 allspice berries
- 1 lemon, halved
Strain enough seawater through a coffee filter to fill a large stockpot (12-18 quarts should be enough) about 3/4 full. Put it over a burner turned to HIGH.
As the water heats, add the corn, potatoes, bay leaves, and allspice berries. Squeeze in the two halves of lemon and dump those in too. Put a lid over it.
Put the crab into the freezer. This will slow them down and sort of numb them. Do not keep them in there longer than 20 minutes or you risk killing them, rendering them gross, gross, gross.
PREPARE TO COOK AND DUMP
- 1 loaf baguette, sliced into pieces
- 1 lemon (130 g.), sliced into 8 equal piece
- Tarragon Butter (recipe follows)
- Black pepper, to taste
Get your dining table lined with a few layers of newspaper. Set your places.
Melt some butter. If you like, make a compound butter. I like tarragon butter with crab:
- 113 g. salted butter (1/2 cup)
- 5 g. fresh tarragon (a few sprigs)
In a small saucepan, bring the two ingredients together over low heat. The butter should melt and foam but not bubble. Let that mix while the broth beside it comes to a boil. Turn it down to WARM or keep the flame quite gentle.
When the boil is raging and the lid is chattering add the crabs. Cover immediately. Ideally, the boil should not stop. As they cook, get a big bowl of ice water ready.
Cook the crab for ten minutes. No longer. Seriously. They might dry out. Plunge them immediately into the ice water. They should be totally submerged.
As those cool, get ready:
Pick out the corn into a bowl, butter it (with plain butter) and crack some black pepper over it.
Pick the potatoes out into a bowl, slightly smash them, and crack some black pepper over them.
Strain the butter into a little bowl.
Cut some crusty bread. Throw it onto the table.
Serve the lemon in a small dish.
Put all of these out onto the table.
You’re all set up. The vegetables are steaming. Turn your attention to the crab.
CLEAN & SERVE THE CRAB
Set one crab onto a work surface. Turn it upside down.
Remove the abdomen.
In the same area, the rear, wiggle your finger between the body and the carapace.
Gently pull the carapace from the body. When you feel it start to come off, make sure the crab is upside down as there will be liquid in the cavity.
Remove the carapace completely. Set aside.
You will see guts and different colors. You will also likely see the crab butter, prized by many for its sumptuousness and rich flavor. I tend to taste a little, but I apprehend eating too much. The butter, also called the hepatopancreas, a digestive organ in the crab that functions like the liver, can be full of toxins. It’s a delicacy, though, and if you’re not squeamish or nervous, save it and eat it. It’s that yellow and orange stuff.
OK, hold the crab by the claws and and legs, one side in each hand, and carefully break the body into two equal pieces. Remove the gills and any organs, viscera and digested food. Rinse each half of the body under cold water.
Serve by scattering the body halves onto the table. Bring lots of napkins. Enjoy with a pilsner or hefeweizen or sparkling water. Oh, and you will get messy. So, leave your Sunday bests in the closet.
Photos by Lori Paulson