Category Archives: crabs

Rock ‘n’ Roll

rock3Seattle is bursting at the seams. Growing pains are being felt in all sorts of ways. Besides the traffic, an increase in fishing pressure is not just the stuff of grumbling old salts at the local. Take crabbing. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s web site, “Catch estimates for Puget Sound as a whole show that recreational [crab] harvest more than doubled from 1996 to 2005.” I can only imagine what the last ten years show.

The good news is that lots of people are getting outside and connecting with their natural heritage; the bad news is that this means shorter seasons, smaller bag limits, and increased competition. Fish and Wildlife manages the fishery carefully so that the tribes, commercials, and sports all get a piece of the action. In part, the agency depends on ever more accurate data to effectively balance the quotas, which is why crabbers now must purchase a crab endorsement (it cost me $8.75 the other day) in addition to a license and return a crab catch record card at the end of the season, just the way you would for salmon and steelhead. Then the number crunchers take over.

Summer crab season opened this past week for much of Puget Sound. I suppose I should feel lucky that I got a few. My usual spot was swarming with scuba divers. Every year their numbers increase. Out beyond the scuba crowd, a phalanx of small boats was busy dropping pots. On shore, guys were using spinning rods to cast miniature crab traps (the traps, about the size and shape of a suet bird feeder, are baited and rigged with loops of fishing line to snare the crabs). It was crabpalooza out there!

Meanwhile, a free diver such as myself just has to hope he can find some crabs in between the scuba crowd and the bank anglers.

It wasn’t easy. I had to get resourceful. I only nabbed a single keeper Dungeness (a couple others were just shy of the 6 1/4-inch size limit and got tossed back). For the first time ever I decided to keep some good-sized rock crabs (pictured above and below). The size minimum is 5 inches across the carapace and these measured 6 inches, which is decent. Rock crabs have less meat than Dungeness, but they have large claws and their meat is sweet and delicious. And while rock crabs aren’t as good as Dungies for a West Coast crab feed—their shells are thicker and require more effort to pick—they’re still really tasty.

New England has the Lobster Roll. Out here on the Left Coast, we have the Dungie Roll—unless you want to take advantage of an underutilized seafood and treat yourself to a Rock ‘n’ Roll.

3 large rock crabs, shelled
4 soft French rolls or hot dog buns
1 cup shredded lettuce
1 thinly sliced tomato
1 dollop mayonnaise
1/4 cup diced celery tops (the leafy parts)
1 green onion, thinly sliced
1 heaping tbsp chopped parsley
squeeze of lemon
seasoning, e.g., paprika, white pepper, salt

Gently mix together the crab meat, mayonnaise, diced celery, green onion, parsley, lemon juice, and seasonings. Lightly toast French rolls or hot dog buns, slather with mayo, and assemble with shredded lettuce, sliced tomato, and dollops of the crab salad. I had to use hamburger buns from the Columbia City Bakery because they were sold out of hot dog buns and potato rolls—my bad for waiting until 4 p.m. on July Fourth to go bread shopping.


What’s in a name? In our anxiety-prone food culture we tend to get uptight about the smallest lexical tics and demarkations. For instance, is it a Bouillabaisse or a Cioppino? How about Fish Soup—that seems to work pretty well. Italians mostly call dishes like this Zuppa di Pesce—Fish Soup. Occasionally Ciuppin. And sometimes Brodetto… Okay, you get the idea.

A Brodetto is a regional Italian variation found along the Adriatic that calls for special inclusion of the scorpionfish, or scorfano. Bouillabaisse is the Provencal word for essentially the same thing. All involve a mixture of both finned fish and shellfish, cooked in a tomato and wine-based stew, with peasant bread for sopping up the rich broth.

Cioppino, legend has it, is a New World invention—the word, that is. Italian immigrants shipping out of San Francisco to fish the Pacific ate Cioppino at sea—the catch of the day plus whatever other ingredients they had on board. The word derives from ciuppin, which translates as “chop”—in other words, chop it all together and make soup.

That’s what I love about Cioppinos and their ilk. When you can get past the regional claims, prejudices, and pronouncements, a Cioppino is merely an efficient and delectable way to make use of the odds and ends hanging around in the fridge. But to do it right you still need a variety of fish. Make it with either red wine or white; with spicy peppers or saffron; with fennel or celery. Just make it. You won’t be disappointed.

I made mine with Dungeness crab I dove for this summer, spot shrimp caught last spring, and a medley of mollusks gathered this past weekend: Manila clams, native littlenecks, and mussels. At the fish market I supplemented the shrimp and bought small bay scallops and Alaskan yellow-eye rockfish (sold as “red snapper,” a fish that doesn’t exist on the West Coast). There was a time when I might have speared my own rockfish but those along the inner shore of Puget Sound are too small and beleaguered to be harvested now.

The bivalves came from my usual beach, where we got limits of oysters, clams, and mussels. Too bad it was raining all day because the low-low tide exposed more of the beach than usual, which made for first-rate exploring. We found eels and other small fish hiding in the oyster beds, and one stretch was carpeted with sand dollars.

Here are my ingredients this time around. Remember that you can use just about anything that swims in the sea, or that filters salt water, as the case may be. Squid add lots of flavor. Just about any firm white-fleshed fish is a good choice; avoid more fragile-fleshed species such as flounder, sole, and thin cuts of cod as well as the dark-fleshed fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, tuna) that will overpower the stew. I used 2 cups of homemade shrimp stock. You can use a cup of clam juice plus a cup of chicken broth, or conventional fish stock. Fish heads are ideal if you can get them; my market was sold out.

2 dozen littleneck clams
2 dozen (or more) mussels
1 lb shrimp, shelled
1 lb bay scallops
1/2 cooked Dungeness crab, broken into leg segments
1 lb rockfish fillets, cut into 3-inch pieces
1-2 cups white wine (or red)
1 28 oz can whole plum tomatoes with liquid
2 cups fish stock (or clam juice, shrimp stock, etc.)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp tomato paste
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium onions (or 1 large), chopped
2 ribs celery, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 bay leaf
1-2 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
fresh basil for garnish
good bread

In a heavy pot or Dutch oven saute the onions in olive oil over medium heat for a minute or two, then add the garlic, chopped vegetables, red pepper flakes, and bay leaf. Cook several minutes until veggies are soft, then stir in tomato paste. Cook another minute and pour in wine and let bubble for a couple minutes. Add tomatoes and stock, roughly chopping the whole tomatoes in the pot. Simmer for a least 30 minutes; longer is better. Add the crab legs and simmer another 15 minutes. When you’re ready to serve the stew, add the fin fish first and simmer for a few minutes, then add the shellfish. When the clams and mussels have all opened, stir in the parsley. It’s ready to eat. Serve piping hot with good crusty bread and some chopped basil for garnish.

As written above, this Cioppino will easily serve six, but for larger groups you can add another can of tomatoes, more wine and stock, extra seasoning, and leave the seafood amounts as is. Or, if serving a smaller group you might consider cutting the shrimp and scallops by half. All this seafood can be expensive when paying market prices, so tinker according to your budget and taste. It’s a very forgiving dish.

Made with Love

Normally I steer clear of our local southend Safeway (the mouse droppings on the shelves of the Asian aisle are kind of a deal-killer), but this weekend I knew I needed ingredients that I wouldn’t find at just any Seattle market. Filé powder, for instance, and okra. Well, it turned out the seafood department was having a sale on Dungeness crab—$4/lb, which is half-price. Just about everyone in that cavernous place was there for the same reason as me: the weather’s finally turned cold in the PNW and it’s time to make gumbo.

While I didn’t need crab—I’ve still got a few bags left in the freezer from my summer dives—I had to have fresh gulf shrimp, not the frozen spot prawns I’ve saved from the spring shrimping season. There were a half-dozen of us in line at the seafood counter and after a little chit-chat it was pretty clear we all had similar designs. It was also clear that I was the only born-Yankee in the bunch. One lady was originally from Baton Rouge, and the couple behind me called Shreveport home. There were some strong opinions about our endeavor. Even the guy behind the counter doling out the crabs and shrimp had something to say on the subject. A woman who was buying enough seafood and sausage to feed a congregation looked at me skeptically.

“You know how to make a roux, honey?”

“Sure,” I said, trying to exude confidence in this crowd of gumbo connoisseurs. “Fat and flour, equal parts. It’s all in the stirring.”

She shook her head. “Love, baby. You’ve got to make it with love. It’s a soul food thing.”

Next stop was the sausage cooler. I had my heart set on Andouille. A woman dressed to the nines looked at my basket and guided me in another direction. Hot links, she advised. The couple from Shreveport ambled past and I hailed them over. They’d been talking about a secret ingredient in their stock. “What about these smoked ham hocks?” I asked, holding up a package of hocks. Someone else sidled up. He wanted to know if I was making a seafood gumbo or not. I said I was. “Put those hocks back,” he nearly barked at me. “They’re no good for a seafood stock.” A lively argument ensued between the Shreveporters and this “born and raised in Orleans Parish” partisan about how to make the best stock. I made a mental note to try the hocks next time for a meat gumbo.

And there will be a next time. To be honest, this was my first gumbo and I wasn’t exactly sure what I was making. I got inspired by a recipe in the current Food & Wine by chef Donald Link of Herbsaint in New Orleans (in a feature about a bunch of great party meals) and made a few changes for this West Coast forager’s version. There are also plenty of resources on the Web, like this site and this one. Everyone up and down the Mississippi has their own family recipe. But the bottom line is this: You can make gumbo just about any way you want, provided you use okra and a roux. There’s even disagreement about the traditional use of filé, which some say is a strictly winter ingredient when fresh okra isn’t available. If there’s one ingredient everyone agrees on it’s this: love. Lots of it.

Dungeness Crab and Gulf Shrimp Gumbo


1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 onion, diced
1 rib celery, diced
1 small carrot, diced
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 lb shrimp, shelled (reserve the meat for later)
1 large or 2 small Dungeness crabs, cooked and cleaned (but not peeled)
2 quarts chicken stock
3 bay leaves

Saute the shrimp shells in oil until red and starting to brown. Stir in tomato paste and cook one minute. Add diced vegetables and saute another minute or two, stirring, before adding stock. (At this point you might want to substitute some clam juice for part of the chicken stock; I didn’t have any on hand and wasn’t about to pay $2.69 for an 8 oz. bottle when I get the clams and their juice for free.) Toss in the bay leaves and bring to a boil, then reduce heat. While the stock is simmering, peel your crab, adding shells as you go. This will help to flavor your stock if you opt out of the clam juice. Save the claws and a couple sections of unpeeled leg for later. I tear off the impossible-to-peel “pinkies” and throw them in whole. Simmer the stock for an hour or two, then strain and set aside (see photo at left; photo above shows the ingredients strained out of the stock).


Heat 1/2 cup of oil over moderate heat and slowly whisk in a 2/3 cup of flour. Stir regularly for 30 min. The roux should turn yellowish, then a golden brown. You may need to raise heat to get the final deep brown. Scrape into a dish for later.


2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1 can crushed tomatoes
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 lb okra, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
1 heaping tsp chili powder
1 heaping tsp paprika
1 heaping tsp dried oregano
1 heaping tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp white pepper
1 tbsp filé powder
shelled shrimp
peeled crab
hot links or other sausage
steamed rice

Saute onion, celery, and garlic in heavy pot until soft. Add the roux and cook over moderate heat until bubbling. Slowly stir in the stock and tomatoes. Reduce heat to low and simmer for an hour or two. In a skillet, saute the green pepper and okra in butter or oil and add spices. Deglaze with a splash of water or stock. Add to gumbo pot. At this point I also add the reserved crab claws and sliced hot links, then let simmer another hour. Just before serving add the shrimp and crab meat. Cook a couple minutes and ladle over rice with a sprinkling of chopped scallions. Serves 8.

Crab Cakes

Bagged a few more crabs the other day but got seasick in the process. That’s one of the risks of free-diving. Or maybe it’s just my constitution. The Sound was kinda rough and visibility was terrible, so I felt lucky getting anything at all. Afterwards, waiting to pick up my kid at camp, I fell asleep in the car. Someone looking for a parking space must have seen me because they kept honking—those little half-honks, like “hey there, are you gonna move?” Pissed me off enough that I went back to sleep. I had crabs swimming around in my trunk; despite the salt head, life was good.

Anyway, peel some Dungeness crab and you’ll know why it’s $25/lb. in the market. It can seem like a daunting task, but once you learn the drill it’s not so hard. I used crab that was already boiled, cleaned, and halved. You can see in some of the pictures that the tips of the exposed meat are slightly yellowed, an indication of previously frozen crab. This won’t make any difference in your cakes; maybe Alice Waters could tell the difference but I sure can’t, not if the crab has been properly frozen and thawed in a reasonable time-frame (in this case, a couple weeks).

How to Peel Dungeness Crab

Step 1: Make a tall drink, because as Lou Reed says in ’69 Live, “this is gonna go on for a little while…so settle back and pull up your cushions.” My summertime choice is a boat drink, the recipe to which I’ll get around to posting one of these bleary mornings.

Step 2: Take a half crab and pull off a leg segment. The best meat is where the leg joins the body, so make sure to carefully separate the segments where they’re connected.

Step 3: The rest is busy work: peeling the shell and exhuming the meat. Make sure you open each knuckle—there’s good meat in there. The claws may require a cracker or a swift blow from an empty beer bottle. At the end of the peeling you’ll have a pile of sweet crab meat and an even larger pile—a small midden, you might say—of shell. Whatever you do, try not to get any little pieces of shell in your meat; biting into a succulent crab cake only to crunch your teeth on some annoying bit of shell detracts from the experience for obvious reasons.

Finspot’s Crab Cakes

This isn’t really my recipe; it’s pretty standard. The key is in the meat to filler ratio. Adjust however you like, but always keep the crab as king.

1/2 large onion, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
parsely, chopped
1 egg
1-2 tbsp mayo
Worcestershire sauce
1/2 lemon
1/2 cup crackermeal or breadcrumbs
Old Bay seasoning

Slapping the cakes together is pretty easy in comparison to the peeling. Saute chopped onion and chopped red bell pepper in plenty of butter. (For 2 medium-sized crabs I used half a pepper and half a Walla Walla sweet onion.) Season to taste. Remove onion-pepper mixture to bowl. Add several pinches of chopped parsley, one egg, mayo, a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce, few shakes of Old Bay, and the juice from a half lemon. Stir together while adding crackermeal or breadcrumbs. Mix in crab last for chunky cakes. Form into patties and refrigerate on wax paper for 20 minutes or so for firmness. Lastly, saute in butter in a large frying pan, with enough room between the cakes so you can easily flip ’em; fry in batches with a smaller pan.

Boiled Crab

As with Maine lobsters, cooking Dungeness crab intimidates many folks. Think Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, with crustaceans all over the kitchen floor. Really, it’s not so tough if you follow these simple steps. And don’t forget your mantra…

Step 1: Plunge live crab in a pot of salted boiling water. Listen for screams. Kidding! That’s just air whistling out of the shell.

Step 2: After 10-15 minutes or so, depending on the quality of the boil, remove crab to newspapers. Let cool.

Step 3: Lift the carapace off by leveraging from hindquarters. This is most easily accomplished by finding the narrow triangular flap on the crab’s abdomen (see image at right) and pulling it back. Now you can get a finger under the back of the carapace and wedge it off. Pull away as much goop (that’s a technical term) with the shell as possible and dispose. Clean gills and any other additional goop still clinging to remainder of crab.

Step 4: Break crab down middle into two mirror sections, as shown in image at top. The crab is now ready for eating or freezing. In my next post I’ll outline the steps for peeling the rest of the crab and making crab cakes.

A note about access: I nearly learned a hard lesson about waterfront access while diving for these crabs. I’d already bagged my limit of five and was swimming back to the beach when I heard a vehicle honking repeatedly. Now try to picture a sole swimmer, decked out in wetsuit, mask, and snorkel popping up like a seal, going, “Who, me?”

Yeah, me.

The guy got out of his official looking pickup and asked me if that was my van in the parking lot. Yup. “Your lucky day,” he said. “I was about to lock the gate behind you.” Turns out this spot I’ve been diving off for a decade or more is currently embroiled in some sort of dispute with an adjacent property owned by the military, and the upshot is that there’s no public access right now—this despite the park benches and other improvements. I just happened to slip in while the gate was open.

Well, I swam my skinny ass back to the beach as fast as I could and offered the guy a crab for his trouble. Bottom line: know your access points.

Crab Feed

When friends come from out of town to visit, I like to give them the opportunity to feel awkward, get dirty, and maybe even impale themselves on a sharp object. I feed them crab. A fresh-caught mess of Dungeness crabs in the shell offers all these advantages, not to mention the reward of sweet, succulent meat that is as much a feature of the West Coast as the blue crab is of the East—only better.

The setup is simple. Newspaper on table, boiled crab on newspaper, beer in hand. There was a time when I melted sticks of butter and left a can of Old Bay out, but I’m over such garish additives now. Crab wants to be eaten neat.

My approach to this time-honored Puget Sound ritual is a little different from most. For one thing, I don’t own a boat. I don’t even have a crab pot. No, I get in the cold cold water—on the crab’s turf. A wetsuit and snorkel are my crab-catching accoutrements. But don’t be fooled. While neoprene gloves may seem safe to the uninitiated, woe to the blasé crab-catcher who allows a careless pinkie to stray into the pinchers of an angry Dungeness…

It’s crab season. For now I’m stock-piling crabs in the freezer, but I’ll post some recipes soon.