Food & Culture
A Field Guide to Crab
Cracking open the Northwest’s manna from heaven
By Jessica Yadegaran, Chelsea Lin and Cynthia Nims; with additional reporting by Haley Durslag June 13, 2016
Summer rituals abound around here, from camping expeditions to late-night beach bonfires. But one of the most delicious among them is crabbing, an activity in which anyone with a license, some simple equipment and access to the water can partake in right here in town (see below for more info.) It perfectly echoes our compulsion to be outdoors now, communing at the seashore or on a nearby pier with a cold beverage in hand and contemplations of the crab feast to come.
What you’ll be crabbing for is our glorious Dungeness—named for a town on the Olympic Peninsula near Sequim. These crabs are among the most iconic foods of the Northwest, with a vivid orange-red shell when cooked (the hue is purply-brick when the crab is alive) that has a characteristic dappled pattern. While folks from the East Coast may argue otherwise, we know Dungeness has a distinctly delicious, sweet, rich flavor that makes it a standout in the crab crowd.
While eating this local treasure is a quintessential Northwest experience, so is heading out to catch some of them for yourself.
With as much access as we have to seawater in Seattle, going crabbing is as easy as heading to your favorite pier or grabbing your rowboat or paddleboard. The Shilshole Marina pier and the Edmonds fishing pier are among convenient crabbing bases, although getting out on the water to drop your pot from a vessel can prove more productive. Your catch will provide a mighty delicious centerpiece for an urban-foraging dinner, capped off with a pie of blackberries picked from that vacant lot down the street.
Once those delicious crabs are in hand—whether you harvested them yourself, or simply hit the market—the resulting feast is one of the most socially engaging meals there is. All pretense of formality is gone; this is a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-eat-with-your-hands extravaganza that puts everyone at ease. Most crab feeds dispense with tablecloths and nice napkins. Instead, hosts cover the table with newspapers (comics or crossword puzzle in view, if you like, for dinnertime entertainment), and offer plenty of paper napkins or paper towels. You’ll be at the table for a good while, rhythmically cracking the shells, picking out the meat and relishing each bite, with intermittent swigs of beer or wine, and forkfuls of the classic side dish—coleslaw.
It’s gastronomic communal interaction at its very best.
Many crab fans enjoy this shellfish simply boiled, in its purest form. Melted butter and lemon are delicious additions, but really not even necessary. For variety, the crab can be steamed, roasted or even grilled. Add to it a bit of citrus, spice or other flavors to complement the sweet meat. If there’s more crab than can be consumed in one sitting, leftovers make a luxurious addition to your breakfast omelet or as a topping for deviled eggs, in a salad with green goddess dressing or tossed with homemade pasta.
There truly is nothing like a good dose of Dungeness crabmeat to immediately elevate any number of things on the menu.
While we often think of crab as a wintertime food in sync with when the coastal commercial season opens, for countless locals—and their very lucky friends—there is nothing more “summer” than eating your fill of crab up to that minute when the season ends.
Ready to try catching your own crab? First, check the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife site (wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfish/crab) for all the details about capturing your crab legally. There are 13 marine areas in the region—Seattle sits squarely in Marine Area 10—each with different seasonal openings, although all tend to be open through much of the summer. Our area’s season usually starts around July 1, although the date can vary a bit each year. As well as having a license, you also are required to report your catch, keep only male crabs, and only those that meet the minimum size; all information is available on the website. There, you can also check the Marine Protected Areas, where crabbing may be restricted; some of those areas sit in the city limits. You’ll also find plenty of helpful information on harvest techniques, how to cook and clean crab, and more.
Just Buy It
If you’re thinking, “Go crabbing? Dream on!” Perhaps “trapping” in our urban markets is more your speed. If you want a live crab, you’ll only find those at fish markets equipped with tanks in which the crustaceans can be kept alive until cooked. Remember that it takes a big pot to cook a live crab. If you don’t have a pot large enough, you may prefer a precooked crab option. Precooked crab has the advantage of being ready to eat, whether chilled as is or cooked just enough to be heated through. If you want to save yourself the work of cleaning the crab—not hard, but it gets messy—at home, ask the fishmonger to do it for you. (Just keep in mind the price you’ll be charged is by the precleaning weight.)
Get Cynthia Nims’ recipe from her upcoming book, Crab (Sasquatch).