Category Archives: free-diving

Abalone Sushi

abs6Happy new year, everyone. As you can see, FOTL has taken a vacation since early November. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t been out there, reveling in the wild bounty.

As in past years when the days turn dark and rainy, I made tracks for the promised land. This time, unlike previous trips in recent memory, the promise was fulfilled: what an extraordinary winter fungi harvest in California. Just add water! as they say. The beleaguered mushroom hunters of the Golden State, pummeled by drought, are seeing the sort of season mostly remembered by old-timers, and all it took was a well-timed spot or two of precip.

I suppose this is the new normal in our era of climate weirding.

I was fortunate enough to join fungus seekers in the Woodlands of Mendocino, a quiet camp among the redwoods about 10 miles inland from the Pacific, where members of the Mycological Society of San Francisco and other local mushroom clubs hold an annual weekend-long foray. And the timing couldn’t have been better. The mushrooms were (and are) popping with abandon. Even now, a couple months after my trip, friends continue to text me photos of enormous matsutake hauls. Porcini started fruiting on the coast as early as September, and black trumpets are having a banner season (not to mention the beautiful specimen of western grisette, Amanita pachycolea, pictured at left). I guess the mushrooms figured they better sporulate while the opportunity presented itself. Collectors in camp brought back queen boletes, oysters, hedgehogs, golden chanterelles, even candycaps, another early pop.

But this post is about snails. After the Woodlands Foray, I joined my friends Curt and Carol on the coast for a night of eating from the sea. Earlier that day they had donned wetsuits to wrangle up some abalone and lingcod. This was my first time really getting serious with abalone. After pounding the meat, Carol sliced it thinly and served a first course of sashimi. The second course was an amazing ceviche. For the third course, strips of abalone were sautéed in a creamy sauce with capers and lemon. The final dish was lingcod broiled with tomatoes and garlic.

As a parting gift, they gave me a coveted chunk of ab. Into my mushroom bucket it went, covered in ice for the 14-hour drive back to Seattle. Once home, I prepared a simple sushi dinner. This is a taste that isn’t exactly easy to come by, especially outside Northern California, and I wanted to let it stand on its own. Abalone are carefully regulated by California’s department of fish and wildlife, with good reason; they’re easily overfished, and poachers continue to be a problem. The flavor is mild, slightly sweet, with a butteriness that’s unusual in shellfish. Served raw as sushi or sashimi is a perfect way to allow the subtle taste to fully express itself.

One of these days I’ll have to slip into the chilly waters of the North Coast myself and pry an ab from the rocks. Eat a few slices of abalone and you’ll understand why divers take their chances in waters patrolled by the great white shark.

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.

A Good Week for the Wetsuit

While the East Coast may be sweating out its first heat wave of the year, here in Seattle the weather’s been unseasonably miserable: sideways rain and bone-chilling cold. I’ve been down in the basement performing unspeakable rites, putting in calls to Nawlins voodoo shops, even screaming “Uncle!” at the top of my lungs. The cold rain and snow just keeps a-coming. So, if you can’t beat ’em…

I put on the wetsuit the other day and went free-diving with my half-fish friend David Francis. Dave gets in a minimum of 100 dives a year. Long ago I stopped worrying about staying submerged even half as long, or seeing the things he sees underwater. I just like getting wet, working muscles that don’t normally see a lot of action, and checking out the marine environment. There’s food to be had, too.

Dave calls it human-powered hunting. We don’t carry fancy spearguns; the Hawaiian sling is our tool of choice (although according to Wikipedia, what we’ve always referred to as a sling is more properly known as a polespear).

When I first started free-diving 15 years ago, there were abundant populations of rockfish and lingcod—or at least they seemed abundant to me—all along the jetties up and down Pugetopolis. Rockfish are slow-growing and often don’t reproduce until several years old (and older), but the lings were considered fair game in limited numbers. Back then it seemed like we were the only ones targeting lings. Lately with salmon runs so depressed, more and more anglers are turning to bottomfish. We see them anchored off jetties that boats used to ignore on their way out to the deeper trolling waters. And now we see fewer and fewer lings. Each spring I wonder if this will be my last backyard ling hunt…and don’t get me started on the chemical contaminants cropping up in these urban in-shore fish.

That said, we saw a few lings… If you want to read more about my adventures free-diving in pursuit of this toothy—and toothsome—delicacy, check back soon and I’ll have details about a forthcoming magazine piece.