In the great crab race, there are those who believe that Alaska’s King Crabs get the checkered flag and beat all other decapod crustaceans for flavor. When Charles and I lived in Baltimore, Md., and Fort Worth, Tex., we were in the stands cheering on the sleek Blue Crab while the rambunctious Floridians were raising their red Styrofoam claws to cheer on the Rock Crab and chanting at the rest of us:
“U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi,
“Your crabs are UGLY.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re ugly.
“M-A-M-A, we know how you got that way,
“Your MAMA, yeah, yeah, yo’ mama.”
But on the West Coast, the winner of the decapod flavor race claws down is the Dungeness Crab. It’s so important economically to Oregon that in 2009, with school children packing the thimble-shaped state house with the golden lumberjack on top to lobby the lawmakers, the Oregon Legislature gave the Dungeness his crown and made him the state crustacean. He’s big, juicy and packed with flavor.
No slight to the lady crabs in the house, but in Oregon, it’s legal to catch, sell and consume only males. After all, we want to protect the species and make sure the lady crabs survive to make more baby crabs. Also, in the open ocean off the Oregon coast, the crabbing season is closed from Aug. 15 until Dec. 1, but in bays and estuaries you can still get as crabby as you want, as long as you don’t toss your boat mate overboard to make room for more crabs.
In Oregon, only male crabs that measure 5¾ inches or wider can be kept. You can tell the guys from gals by flipping the crabs over and getting a little more up close and personal with the suckers. Male crabs have a narrow, long abdominal flap. Females have a rounder triangular abdominal flap. In Oregon, the daily limit on Dungeness is 12 per person, and each person is allowed to use up to three crab pots or rings.
Crabs are the scavengers of the oceanic world, so for bait you have to think like a scavenger: The more aromatic and decomposed, the better. Turkey drumsticks are great and easy to tie onto the crab pots. Just leave them in the garage unrefrigerated in a Ziploc bag until they’re nice and ripe. Also good are the remnants of fish like albacore tuna, lingcod or rockfish after the flesh has been filleted off the bones. It’s even better if the heads are still attached to the skeletons. Again, the riper the better.
As far as locations for crabbing in Oregon, it all depends on whether or not you have access to a boat. If you do, Newport Bay, Tillamook Bay and Nehalem Bay are great spots. The crabbing is best on incoming tide (when seawater is moving into the bays) or at slack tides (when the water doesn’t flow in either direction very fast, usually at the apex of high and low tides).
If you don’t have a boat, have no fear; you can still catch the king of the decapods. There are public crabbing piers near the jetties at the mouth of Newport Bay and there’s a crabbing pier near the old Coast Guard station at the mouth of Tillamook Bay in Garibaldi. Both of these options require that you have crab pots that you own or can beg, borrow or steal.
For the more civilized crabber, who doesn’t have the room in their garage or car for stinky bait, crab pots or rings, there’s always the Jetty Fishery at 27550 Hwy 101 North, just north of Rockaway Beach. It’s a private jetty that specializes in outfitting and feeding crab enthusiasts. They rent crab rings, sell bait, and even rent boats if you want to venture out into the bay to set your rings. They’ve even got live crabs for sale and will cook them for you.
Charles and I have dragged a friend along with us to the Jetty Fishery and did both options: crabbing from their pier, and renting a boat.
Crabbing from the pier on Nehalem Bay was a daylong experience and we were prepared with a cooler of Coronas, a bottle of King Estate Acrobat Pinot Gris (and three wine glasses, mind you), bottled water, and gourmet sandwiches that our friend Anne Thompson had prepared. Another cooler was filled with bags of ice to hold the catch of the day.
Our crabbing adventure started when each of us tossed our rented crab rings, complete with an irresistibly aromatic fish carcass affixed to the center of the netted ring, into the water. We hung on to the heavy nylon ropes affixed to each ring until we were certain that the ring had hit the bottom of the bay, and then placed the end of the rope with the float on it in buckets on the pier to make it easier for us to keep track of our rings. We then chilled out on the folding camp chairs we had brought with us until about seven minutes had passed, at which time, being the captain of this adventure, I rounded up my scalawags to haul up the rings one by one, flipping each crustacean over and inspecting it for sex and size before tossing it in the “catch” cooler or back into the ocean to live another day, and hopefully not steal our bait.
By the end of the day, we had amassed nearly 30 victims in our cold dungeon. To keep them alive, I had been periodically filling and emptying the cooler of seawater. Before leaving the pier with our prey, I completely emptied the cooler of seawater and covered the tops of the crabs with some kelp that we had hauled up from the ocean bottom, along with the crabs in the rings.
The next time we went, we rented a boat and six crab rings from the Jetty Fishery for two hours and caught about two dozen crabs in much less time.
Come cooking time, some will insist on boiling the crabs. The simplest way that my family and I enjoy crab is steamed. I think boiling the crabs robs their flesh of some of the sweetness. Steaming the crabs means none of their juice gets washed away. I’ll sometimes put Crab Boil or Old Bay Seasoning in the water if I want an aromatic steam to impart a spicy flavor to the crab.
Another way I like to prepare the crabs is a spicier version that I remember from my childhood in Singapore: Curried Crab with Ginger and Scallions.
Here’s my adaptation.
Curried Dungeness Crab with Ginger and Scallions
- Live Dungeness crabs (at least 1 per person)
- 6 or 7 spring onions, cut into 3-inch (7.5 cm.) lengths
- A length of ginger root about 3 inches (7.5 cm.) long, peeled and sliced into thin strips
- 1 to 2 tablespoons (15-30 ml.) of curry powder (1 tablespoon for 2 crabs, 2 for more)
- 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 3 tablespoons (45 ml.) of oil
- Check each crab to make sure it’s still alive. If it moves, it’s good to go. If not, toss it.
- Prep each crab by breaking off its abdominal flap, then lay it on its back on a butcher block. Take your sturdiest cleaver and position it on the crab’s stomach, right down the middle. If you’re butch enough, form your hand into a fist and slam it down on the cleaver to split the crab cleanly into two halves. If you’re not so butch, take something that you can use as a hammer, like a rubber mallet, a meat tenderizer, or your spouse’s thick skull. You get the idea. Then you remove the crab’s carapace by pulling it off from the hind end, where the abdominal flap was attached. Clean all the innards and rinse each crab half in the sink and set it in a colander. Repeat until all crabs have been prepped.
- In a wok, heat the oil over high heat.
- Add garlic, ginger root and cook for a few minutes until aromatic. Add the curry powder and 1 cup (240 ml.) of hot water.
- Add the crab, toss to completely coat the crab with the curried liquid, then cover the wok. After about 10 minutes, toss again and add more hot water if it has boiled away and cover for another 10 minutes.
- Add the scallions, stir until they’re slightly wilted and then plate the crabs and pour the wok juices over them.
- Note: If you’re preparing more than 2 crabs, you’ll need to cook them in batches of four halves or they’ll never fit into your wok. Just increase the ginger, garlic, and curry powder proportionately, and divide for the number of batches.
Note: This is a messy meal, best enjoyed with really, really, really good friends and lots and lots and lots of napkins.