Looking back now I realize that my parents, aunts and uncles had quite a little scam going when my cousins and I were kids. It may in fact be a scam that many parents in the Chesapeake Bay region have been pulling on their children for years. On the days when our families would gather at the shore, our folks would have to just sit on the beach in lawn chairs with a cooler, hell… COOLERS of beer and talk, while us kids got to go crabbing.
When we were little, crabbing simply required a hand net, a bucket, a spool of kite string and a package of raw chicken legs. We’d tie a chicken leg onto a long piece of string and toss it out into the water, then slowly pull chicken back to shore. The crabs would grab hold of the chicken so stubbornly that they’d let us pull them into the ankle deep water at the shoreline where we could net them up. The crab would be dumped in the bucket, rinse and repeat.
Since we were off the bay, there were no waves to speak of, in fact it was often a grassy shoreline. So there was no surf, no hooks, no knives, no deep water. Worst case scenario, one of us kids would get pinched by a crab. It wasn’t exactly Deadliest Catch. That was a childhood activity that even my crazy, over protective mom approved of. Seriously, the woman once announced in front of a group of my friends that she was worried about me playing outside on a cloudy day for fear that lightning would be attracted to my braces. Don’t think I wasn’t hearing about that for the next several years at school.
But I digress.
Anyway, throughout the day my cousins and I would catch crabs that way by the bushel. In the late afternoon, the adults would boil them up and we’d have crabs for dinner.
Our poor parents, they had to lounge around on the beach all day, drinking beer and chewing the fat while we got to spend the day catching our dinne…… HEY!
Well played parental units, well played. 😉
Of course on the East coast it’s all about the blue crabs (aka blue claw crabs). I spent most of my life eating those and for several years after moving out here to the West side, I preached up and down how vastly superior the flavor of blue crabs are over dungeness. That was before I started catching and cooking my own. I should have known, you never really know the true quality of any seafood until you’ve caught it and eaten it within hours of if swimming, or in this case crawling, in the water.
So I’ve decided to abandon the conversation over which crab is better and just go with them both being delicious. Although I will say this, you get a lot more meat out of a dungeness crab than you do from a blue crab. I’ve gotten upwards of a pound of meat from a good sized dungeness. It would take a half dozen blue crabs to yield that much meat. Of course the trade off is the limit catch for “dungies” is 5 per day, while the blue crab limit is basically a bushel full.
I’ve never heard of anyone out here using the chicken & string method. It could be that dungeness aren’t as tenacious about holding onto a meal, or perhaps dungeness aren’t a densely populated in the Sound as blue crabs are in the Chesapeake, or it could be that parents out here just aren’t as crafty as they are in the mid-East coast.
Here in the Puget Sound region most of us use crab pots, baited traps that are easy for the crabs to walk into but not so easy for them to exit. Kind of like roach motels for crabs.
If you are going out fishing anyway, it’s almost like a free bonus, once you get past the cost of the gear of course. We drop our pots first thing after we head out in the morning, go fishing and then pull the pots before heading back to the marina. The heads, guts and bones of the fish we caught today are bait for tomorrow’s crab pots. That’s just Easy Peazy, which coincidentally was the name of my first girlfriend in high school.
Alright, so the pots sit on the bottom, usually in between 40 and 100 feet of water. A long piece of rope leads to a buoy floating on the surface. Remember that pot puller that we used to retrieve the shrimp pots? Well it works great for the crab pots as well, and since the crab pots are lighter and we drop them only half as deep or less than the shrimp pots, they are much easier to bring up. Once again, I’m kickin’ it with my girl Easy Peazy. You know some of the kids used to call her “Easy Sleazy”; children can be so cruel.
Now I can throw a ton of crab recipes at you. In fact as I’m writing this I have a belly full of crab risotto. However I want to start out with the basics and we’ll get to more involved dishes later.
Have you seen the movie Cast Away? There is a scene where Tom Hanks catches a crab to eat but he has yet to be able to start a fire, so he tries to eat the crab raw. He breaks the shell open and inside is nothing but goo. The lesson here is that you need to cook the crab before you do anything else with it.
The Pacific Northwest standard for cooking off dungeness crab is to boil it in salted water. It seemed like everyone was telling me that’s what I had to do when I started crabbing out here. I tried it and I must say, I’m not a fan. Boiling tends to steal flavor from the crab and with nothing in the liquid aside from salt to add some flavor back, you end up on the losing end of the flavor scale cooking them that way. There’s a number of ways to cook crab and I’ve experimented with a bunch of them. There are some cooking methods I like to use for particular dishes but I do have a go-to cooking recipe that I use most times I cook crab.
Just about all crab dishes involve cooking the crab, picking the meat from the shell and then using that to make the dish. Of course there is always the old Maryland standby way of eating crabs. That means you spread newspaper over the table, open a cold beer and just start cracking open the crabs and eating the meat as you pick it out of the shell. I’ve spent many an hour eating crabs with family and friends back home like that, and it is a dining experience that is near & dear to my heart. Perhaps it is for that reason I tried using the ubiquitous seasoning for Maryland crabs, Old Bay. To my palate it works just as well for dungies as it does for blue crabs.
Steaming I found is a much better way to cook the crabs then boiling. The meat comes out much more succulent when steamed. Last season I was putting a metal colander in the bottom of a large pot to keep the crabs out of the liquid. This year I bought myself a large steamer pot. It wasn’t that expensive and it works great.
You can use just water to steam the crabs of course, but I started experimenting with adding flavorings to the water. I tried using onions, garlic, herbs, spices, citrus fruits and various alcohols. My clear favorite was a steaming liquid that was half water and half beer. Any beer will work but a full bodied one like a microbrew will work best.
Be cautioned, most home cooks put too much liquid into the pots when they steam. An inch or so of liquid is plenty to steam crabs. That amount allows the liquid to come to a rapid boil quickly, keeps any flavors you’ve added strong, plus when juices drip out of the crab they won’t be so diluted that they can’t add flavor back to the steam.
Of course you want to be careful not to let the liquid boil dry and scorch. Not only will that likely ruin the pot, it will definitely ruin the batch of crabs. No seasoning, no spice, no marinade created penetrates food as quickly and throughly as the burnt taste of a scorched pot.
Since I’m not sure how large of a pot you have and that will determine how many crabs you can do at once, I’ll have to keep the quantities vague on this recipe. You can steam crabs in batches of course, just be sure to adjust the amount of liquid in the pot between batches if necessary.
Also, if you are working with blue crabs, this recipe works well for them too.
Basic Steamed Crabs
Steamer pot (or large pot with a steamer grate or colander inside) with a well fitting but not too tight lid.
Whole dungeness crabs
50/50 mixture of water & beer, 1 – 1 ¼ inches deep in the pot
Old Bay seasoning, as needed
When the liquid is boiling well and steam is escaping, remove the lid.
Sprinkle a heavy coating of Old Bay all over each crab. Do this over the steamer pot so the excess spice falls inside.
Replace the lid and steam until done, about 10 – 12 minutes. When they are ready the shells will turn orange and white fat will begin to escape from the joints.
At this point the crabs are ready to eat. Caution: their filling may be hot.
Alternately, you can cool them in the fridge and pick the meat from their shells later.
With part of my first batch of crabs this season I made Crab Louie Salads for dinner. There are plenty of louie dressing recipes available on the web, but it is basically a 1000 island dressing. Feel free to buy a good quality bottled one if you wish. I suggest getting one that is sold in the refrigerated section of the market.
Then just toss some salad greens in some dressing, place it in a bowl and top it with tomatoes, cucumbers, hard boiled egg, olives, crab meat and optionally avocado. I don’t like olives personally so I decided to substitute those with roasted corn. Then just lightly drizzle a little bit more dressing over the top.
Viola! Dinner salad is served!