Turkey, ham, and prime rib may be the meal that comes to mind around the holidays but San Franciscan’s and Northern California chefs know that the easiest way to have an amazingly memorable holiday feast is with dungeness crabs fresh off the boat. Dungeness crab season varies each year but generally runs from November to June; just in time for Thanksgiving! While I have been scheming for a few years to get a crab pot and try my luck at kayak crab fishing, it just hasn’t worked out. That however, is to my kids benefit because our family traditon has evolved to making a family excursion out to the crab boats where the kids can pick out the fiestiest crabs right from the fishermen.
This year we turned our annual crab feast into a local food holiday get together. We headed up to Guerneville and invited the extended family to stay with us at the Lucky Bend Lookout vacation rental overlooking the Russian River. Between the Russian River Valley wineries, the western Sonoma bakeries, and Bodega commercial fishery we had fresh everything at our table. Read on for our guide on where to get every thing you need including our recipe for reliable steaming.
The Main Event
For kids who are intrigued by every little crab we can find the bay area tide pools, picking out dungeness crabs as big as dinner plates is a mind boggling experience with the thrill of evading giant pinchers! You can get the crabs presteamed at several restaurants and fishmarkets in Bodega. However, live crabs are definitely the fresehest and funnest.
Bring a cooler with a lid that latches. When you first get them, they will be quite active and try to escape or pinch anything within reach. This is a good opportunity to talk with the kids about the crab anatomy. See if they can find the eyes, the mouth, and count the legs, etc. The safest way to handle the crabs is to grab it by the edges of it’s shell or by the butt. Be careful to not let your fingers stray within pincher range. If the crabs are too fiesty you can ask the fishmonger to put some ice in your cooler to “zonk” them out and make them more docile. When planning how many to buy, the rule of thumb is 1 crab for two eaters or 1 crab per three moderate to light eaters. Make sure you have nutcrackers for cracking the legs where the best meat is. The body meat is plentiful but requires some more work to get to. A mini fork makes the work easier.
Fresh off the Boat
Heading out to the boats and meeting the fishermen is very engaging opportunity to teach the kids about where food comes from. When the crab boats have returned with their tasty treasure Paisano Brothers (1820 Westshore Rd, Bodega Bay) posts a sign along the road at their location on the west side of Bodega bay right next to Spud Point Marina. They unload giant boxes full to the brim with crabs and you can buy it right there on the pier and check out the boats. The best time to go is in the morning. Bodega Bay has a less crowded crab fishery so you don’t have to go too early like you do at Pillar Point in Halfmoon Bay.
From the Fishmonger
If the timing doesn’t work out with the boats, don’t fear, your dinner feast plans are still on. The fishmonger is a more reliable way to get crab as they have agreements with the local commercial fisherman and keep consistent business hours. get your fresh crab at Fisheterian Fish Market (599 HWY-1, Bodega Bay). They have super friendly staff in their shop with the added benefit that you can have them steam the crabs for you. At Fisheterian you can see the crews unloading the crabs but it is around back behind the shop so you have to peer through a chainlink fence to see the action.
While sweet crab meat dipped in fresh melted butter and hot sourdough makes me drool all over my keyboard as I write this, the kids are not so easily pleased. As fascinating as the crabs are, our children are still too squeemish venture too far beyond the kid basics. Our daughter could survive quite happily on bread alone. But to our surprise we found out that our son loves clam chowder. Luckily the best clam chowder on the whole west coast of the United States is available in Bodega Bay. On the way back from picking up the crab go on a local food adventure to collect the sides that will round out the meal.
I was born in Portland, raised in Seattle, went to college in the central coast of California and now call San Francisco my home. With all this west coasting, I have had the opportunity to try a lot of chowder recipes. In Seattle we used to dig clams and make chowder right there on the beach! It is hard to beat that but I find that Spud Point Crab Company (1910 Westshore Rd, Bodega Bay) makes some of the very best chowder. It has a unique herby flavor to it that might turn off die-hard purists but for the rest of us it’s creamy seafood heaven kicked up a bit to really make it all sing. Spud Point Crab Company is right down the street from Paisano Brothers. If the line at the main store is too long, they have an express booth just for clam chowder pickup.
Of course the second best part about crab is the hot butter dipping! If you are going to go to the effort to great fresh crab, make sure you get really good butter to go with it. It is the only other thing between your tongue and crab so it better be good. This one takes a bit more planning though. On your drive up from the Bay Area, stop at McClelland’s Dairy (6475 Bodega Avenue, Petaluma), west of Petaluma and visit their store right there in the dairy. Pet some cows while you are there as well! This is likely going to be the freshest butter you have ever tried. It is European style, meaning is has a higher butterfat content for a much richer taste. Generally for baking and other things I use unsalted butter but for crab dipping, sea salted is the way to go. Do yourself a favor and get a ceramic butter warmer to keep that butter nice and melty hot.
With all that butter it would be a tragedy to not have some warm crusty sourdough to sop up the dippings. The best tasting crustiest crust in western Sonoma County comes from the wood-fired brick oven at Wild Flour Bread (140 Bohemian Hwy, Freestone). They are located in Freestone which is on the way back to Guerneville from Bodega. Mind the hours though, bread is available only after 9am and they are only open Friday through Monday. Nightingale Bread (6665 Front Street, Forestville) in Forestville has similarly delicious sourdough, especially their seeded sourdough. If Wild Flour is closed, it is definitely worth the side trip over to Forestville even if it is out of the way.
Fortunately, crab season is also brussels sprouts season, oh the roasted garlicy goodness. Andy’s Produce Market (1691 N. Gravenstein Hwy, Sebastopol) is your source for fresh local produce to lend some color to your table.
A nice dry sparkler is perfect for cutting though all that butter and right in Guerneville is Korbel Winery (13250 River Rd, Guerneville). Our personal favorite is the Korbel Natural which is fermented from Russian River Pinot Noir and and Chardonay grapes. It is the driest champagne that Korbel makes which stands up to the butter and the apple and citrus characteristics pair very well with the delicate sweet crab meat without overpowering it.
Let’s get Steamy!
Steaming crab is easy but cleaning is the part that takes some getting used to. Our grill has a side burner that is perfect for a large pot with the side benefit that all that steam doesn’t fog up the windows and obscure the views of the river rolling by.
- Fill a deep pot with 2-3 cups of water per 1 to 2 pound crab. Place the steamer insert deep in the pot and bring the water to a rolling boil.
- Place the crabs in the pot on their backs to foil escape attempts and steam for 12-16 minutes. The meat continues cooking after you remove it unless you shock it in ice water. Also crabs that were zonked out in the freezer will bring your water temperature down so you need the full 16 minutes.
- Cleaning is the gross part so make sure you have a garbage disposal at your…disposal. Remove the shell and rinse the green-yellow tomalley out of the body cavity. Some people save this for soup stock or sauce.
- Filp the crab over and remove the triangular tab and gills. Crack the body in half and remove the legs.
- Go to town with the crab crackers and miniforks!