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Appetites and Afterthoughts

More about crab than you may want to know

The delicious Dungeness crab. photo: onepinkhippo / flickr

The other day I got to musing about crab. The Dungeness crab season opened Nov. 15. I submit to you that Nov. 15 was one of the most important dates on this year’s calendar. I was ready for it. I put in my order at Swan Oyster Depot for a few big ones, cracked and ready to go. I had been in training for crab season all summer doing some field work with crab from up around Oregon someplace. Good but not great.

There are literally thousands of species and subspecies of crab. And we have dined on them with gusto as far back as prehistoric times.

Crabs are forbidding creatures, exoskeletal, all spines and claws and hard carapaces. One wonders how that first gourmet decided they were edible. Perhaps he or she had already encountered an oyster, squeezed a bit of lemon juice on it and slurped. After that, crab was a cinch.

As you may have surmised, crab is my thing. I never met a crab I didn’t like. Here are some personal observations.

ALASKA KING CRAB

This is that giant crab from Alaska. In this case bigger is not better. But I suppose king crab, Paralithodes camtschaticus, is better than no crab at all. Meat comes from the legs and claws and doesn’t have much flavor. King crab is frequently steamed and dipped in melted butter, perhaps the only sensible way to devour this giant. King crab flounders, to use a fishy metaphor.

CHESAPEAKE BAY BLUE CRAB

Its Latin name, Callinectes sapidus, means beautiful swimmer. Devotees usually have East Coast Chesapeake Bay blue crab one of two ways — either steamed or shell-and-all, when they’re molting and sloughing off their old hard skeletons and beginning to grow new ones. The flavor of the steamed crab is somewhat nutty and “crabby,” if you will. The flavor of the molting, shell-and-all, crab, is nil as far as I’m concerned. I don’t understand the big deal about soft shell crab. Enlighten me.

PEEKYTOE CRAB

What a ridiculous name for a noble crustacean. Actually they are small Atlantic rock crab, Cancer irroratus, that were a throwaway by-product of Maine lobster fishermen until about 1997 when Rod Mitchell, proprietor of a seafood wholesaler in Portland, Maine decided to call them by their slang name. Peekytoe or “picked toe” came from their sharp pointed claw. What do they taste like? Slightly sweet and briny.

STONE CRAB

Stone crab from Florida, specifically from the iconic Miami Beach restaurant Joe’s Stone Crab founded in 1913, is marvelous with a mustard-mayonnaise sauce. Its Latin name is Menippe mercenaria. If there was no such thing as Dungeness crab, stone crab would be my favorite. Only the claws are eaten. They’re large — about the size of the palm of your hand — and have a nutty and salty taste. Crab fisherman twist off one claw for the market and throw the crab back in the water where they promptly grow another one.

SHANGHAI HAIRY CRAB

So-called hairy crabs are a delicacy in Asia. They are also known as the Chinese mitten crab, in Latin, Eriocheir sinensis. Hairy crabs are not really hairy; fuzzy would be a better adjective. But you don’t eat the fuzz. Usually steamed, most Shanghai restaurants require you to tear the beast apart with your own claws. When I visited Shanghai, I found that they were messy to eat and much ado about very little. I tried them in several restaurants and each time discerned a whiff of worn athletic socks — not unpleasant, I should add. Lest you lose faith with your crab-centric columnist, let’s just say the flavor of the hairy crab was musky like a proper athletic sock should be.

AUSTRALIAN MUD CRAB

The Australian mud crab, Scylla serrata, rates a mention. When I tried them in Sydney, steamed and served with mayonnaise, I thought they had a faint aroma of ammonia, and that put me off. Maybe that’s why they are also frequently served in Australia in a chili sauce. I tried that, too, but they’re not as good as the chili crab served in the food stalls of Singapore where they use those mud crabs that have probably crawled all the way from Australia.

EUROPEAN EDIBLE CRAB

This versatile crab, Cancer pagurus, also called brown crab because of its color, is found mostly in European markets and restaurants. As are some of its brethren, it is sweet and briny. European edible crab is prominent in crab bisque, bouillabaisse and in crabe Mexicaine.

DUNGENESS CRAB

Ah, but Dungeness crab — Metacarcinus magister — incredible! The aristocrat! Simply the best crab in the world, it’s named after the port of Dungeness in the state of Washington. But what is it about this beauty that makes it so special? Well, for one, it does not smell like athletic socks, new or used. Dungeness crab tastes slightly sea-salty and the word “funky” comes to mind. Funky in a nice way. And it’s not necessary to mask its glory with a lot of sauce. It’s best cracked and cold with you picking the meat from the claws, legs, and bodies and dipping it in a bit of homemade mayonnaise.

If you insist on complicating your Dungeness crab life, try it as crab cioppino, crab ciacucco (cioppino with a hot peppery attitude), crab Louis, the Palace Court Salad with crab legs, or as Shanghai-style crab soup dumplings.

Well, that’s it — I’m all crabbed out. But if you’re interested in a recipe for one of the Dungeness crab dishes in the preceding paragraph, let me know and I’ll send it.

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