Eat Local: Gettin’ Crabby

February 18, 2015 § 1 Comment

What’s your favorite food indulgence? I don’t mean the usual 3 o’clock bag of M&M’s from the office vending machine, but the Something Special you treat yourself to when you’ve been very, very good…or when your day has been very, very bad. Chocolate? Cupcakes? Steak? For me, it’s seafood — especially our local Dungeness crab. (Indulgent? Yes! But good-for-you, too. Dungeness crab is low-fat, low-carb, high-protein, and high in B vitamins and a variety of essential minerals.)

If it’s a holiday, my birthday, or a day of personal success — article published, big project finished, you get the idea — then I’m stopping into my local market for some crabby deliciousness.

Fresh (not frozen) Oregon crabs at Whole Foods Market

How you doin’?! Fresh (not frozen) Oregon crabs at Whole Foods Market

So, how disappointed was I last week, when my market’s fish guy told me that we’ve seen the last of local, fresh crab from Half Moon Bay?! Sure, my market had me covered with fresh, cooked crabs that I could take home that day — the fish guy would even crack and clean them at no charge — but these crustaceans were from Oregon. Oregon? Yep, said fish guy. Local, fresh crab was finished. Finito. D-U-N. Whoa — wait, what?!

Officially our Dungeness crab season starts in November, just in time for Thanksgiving, and ends on June 30. So, what gives? Just two months ago we had beautiful, big crabs weighing 2 to 2½ pounds coming right out of Pillar Point Harbor. These things were fat with that luscious, fresh seawater sweetness that Dungeness is known for. And now? Lately we’re seeing smaller crabs weighing in at about 1½ pounds arriving from points north of Mendocino. Supposedly that supply will be coming to an end in early March. And after that? Nothin’ but “previously frozen” for the rest of the season. While “previously frozen” is fine for some seafood — fatty fish, such as salmon, for example — it can affect the texture of Dungeness crab, especially if the crab has been cooked before freezing. (I find cooked, previously frozen crabmeat tougher and lacking the enticing sweetness of fresh crabmeat.)

Holiday Dungeness: cleaned, but not cracked... weighing in at 2.25 pounds each

Holiday Dungeness: cleaned, but not cracked… weighing in at 2.25 pounds each

Mother Nature definitely plays a part in this story, as weather and seasonal changes have impacted this year’s crab supply. The storms that brought much-needed rain to the Bay Area in January also prevented local fishermen from getting out to sea and doing their thing. That means limited supply for lots of demand once the boats get out on the water again.

Only mature male crabs that meet the Fish & Game Department’s size requirements can be harvested (for example, this Oregon publication says that mature male crabs must measure 6.25 inches across the back of the shell.) Sustainability is essential to the industry, which means that female crabs and undersized male crabs are excluded from the catch and returned to the ocean. Mature male crabs are tested for appropriate body size throughout the season, but apparently once the male crabs fall below the required minimum size, commercial crabbing is finished.

The season couldn’t really be over already, could it? That got me thinking: maybe it was time to check out other sources for local, fresh Dungeness crab. I’m loyal to my local market, but maybe I needed to explore other options. I’ve been holding off making a field trip to Pillar Point to buy directly from the crabbers themselves, but maybe now was the time. Where there’s Dungeness crab, there’s a way.

Before making the drive over the hill, I decided to do a little recon first. First call: the Pillar Point Harbor fish line. No luck. The message I heard was “There are no boats selling today.” Wellll, I thought, maybe the crabbers have already sold to the markets. Who else to call next, but Princeton Seafood Company. Peggy, who answered the phone, confirmed what my local market had already told me: they had a few left, but the local catch was “pretty much done for the season.” Damn.

On a whim, I decided to call a couple of other 650 seafood spots just to see if they were telling the same sad tale: Cooks Seafood in Menlo Park and New England Lobster in Burlingame. Both stock local seafood and have personable folks who can answer questions about the availability of local and fresh products. Interestingly enough, both markets said they had plenty of fresh crab from Half Moon Bay and reminded me that the season doesn’t end until June. When I asked Cooks how they were able to stock fresh (not frozen) local 2-pound crabs in abundance when other markets seemed tapped out, they told me (and I’m paraphrasing) that they have their ways. In short, they’ll find the boats still crabbing and buy from them.

One source I have yet to try is the Crabline app, which lists contact info for boats that sell directly to consumers. A great idea if you want to support local fishermen, but not if you’re short on time. You’ll have to contact each fisherman by phone or email and leave a message with your request. And, of course, you’re on your own to cook, clean, and crack your crab.

So, can you still buy local, fresh Dungeness crab in the 650? Yes, if you’re willing to do the legwork — er, phone work — but I recommend calling ahead and asking questions about the following:

  • Fresh or frozen: Have the crabs been previously frozen?
  • Source: Does the market have a direct relationship with their supplier — which is to say: are they buying directly from a fisherman or through a distributor? Are the Dungeness crabs from Half Moon Bay, or points north or south of HMB?
  • Weight: What’s the weight range of the crabs in stock? The yield of crab meat from shell is about 25%, which means that a 2-pound crab will yield ½ pound of crab meat.
  • Cooked or not: You can save yourself some time and mess by letting your market cook, crack, and clean the crab for you. Most markets don’t charge extra for cracking and cleaning, and it only takes a few minutes.

In case you’re wondering, I thoroughly enjoyed that Oregon crab, pulled right from the shell, drizzled with flavorful olive oil, fresh lemon juice (from my backyard lemons), and a sprinkling of freshly ground sea salt.

Yes, please: Freshly picked Dungeness crab with a touch of olive oil and lemon from my yard

Yes, please: Freshly picked Dungeness crab with a touch of olive oil and lemon from my yard

Waste-Less Wednesday Tip: Save the shells from your cooked Dungeness crabs to make rich, tasty Crab Stock. (I made a half-batch of this recipe from Epicurious.com.) Collect the shells in a large ziplock bag (squeeze out the air and seal) and store in the coldest part of your fridge for no more than 24 hours. Use the stock for Crab Bisque or a Crab & Vegetable Soup, or freeze the stock to enjoy when Dungeness crab season is really over.save-the-shells

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