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 in Oakland, Calif. 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.
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.
Grilled Dungeness crab
Total time: 20 minutes, plus marinating time
- 2 cooked whole Dungeness crabs
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- ½ teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 2/3 cup chopped parsley
- ¼ cup chopped green onion (green parts only)
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- Clean and crack the crabs, keeping the legs attached to their respective body segments. Using the back of a heavy knife, crack the shell of each leg joint (without breaking them into pieces) to allow the marinade to penetrate. Place in a large mixing bowl.
- In a mortar and pestle, grind the fennel seed, red pepper flakes, black peppercorns and salt to a powder (some of the spice pieces will stay more intact). Add the parsley and the green onion and grind to a coarse pulp. Add the olive oil a little at a time until you have a wet, sticky sludge.
- Alternatively, you can grind the fennel seed, red pepper flakes, black peppercorns, salt, parsley and green onions in a blender, and then slowly add the olive oil with the blender running until you have the right texture.
- Pour the herb mixture over the crabs and mix with your hands, making sure each piece is coated evenly. Refrigerate for at least an hour to allow the crab to marinate.
- Start a hot fire in the grill. Empty the mixing bowl onto the grill and use tongs or a large spatula to distribute the crab pieces in a single layer. Every 2 to 3 minutes, use the tongs or spatula to scoop and turn the crab pieces. The crab is grilled when you see traces of scorching on the shell and some of the herb mixture has blackened, 6 to 7 minutes.
- Alternatively, spread the crab out onto a rimmed baking sheet and broil until the shell is lightly scorched and some of the herb mixture has blackened, 4 to 5 minutes.
- Serve immediately.
Serves: 4 to 6 as appetizer, 2 to 4 as main course
Nutrition per each of 4 servings: 239 calories; 15 grams protein; 3 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 19 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 48 mg cholesterol; 0 sugar; 1,088 mg sodium.