A Mendocino expedition yields fresh, simple Dungeness dishes
We set out in search of crab aboard El Patron, which nosed away from the Rumblefish dock in Noyo Fishing Center, then lifted its prow into the white mist to plow past the black cliffs of Northern California's Mendocino coast. Mountainous swells and bitter wind questioned our judgment on this midwinter day. But a rainbow broke through the mist in favor of the mission. Temporarily distracted by a cry of "Pod off the port side!" we followed some whales, and the rainbow followed us. Crab isn't an urgent matter, after all; it's just part of the bigger rhythm here.
Finally, though, we pulled some crab pots, only to study their low-tech mechanisms for allowing undersize specimens and unwanted critters to escape ― safeguards to help sustain the stock and surrounding marine life. It wasn't a great year for harvesting Dungeness, but there was hope: Crabbers were spotting large numbers of "teenagers," which would soon be big enough to harvest. The cycle goes up and down, part of that natural rhythm.
In the end, we found the crab we were looking for ― back on the dock, where Capt'n Bobino (Pete Huckins, in other settings), local seafood distributor, crab shack proprietor, and general character, took a machete to some crustaceans pulled in by savvier crabbers than we. He dropped them into a cast-iron skillet with olive oil and garlic, doused them with sherry and butter, and gussied them up with vermicelli. Even the baguettes went into the pan. Not a pretty dish, but the sauce dripping off our elbows as we dipped into it testified to the pleasure of crab.
As a shortcut to purchasing live crabs and cooking and cleaning them at home, buy cooked crabs and have them cleaned and cracked at the market.
Crack the crab ― or have it cracked ― before adding it to warm or cold sauces, so flavors can seep under the shell.
Provide crab crackers or nutcrackers to break shells further, containers to hold discarded shells, and damp towels or bowls of water to clean messy hands.