California's Dungeness crab season off to a promising start

Dungeness crab season kicked off Nov. 15, and there’s plenty of good news for those who crave this tasty crustacean.

The commercial season started on time, the crabs are looking pleasantly plump, and prices remain stable. So if you were planning to boil some crabs plucked fresh from the San Francisco Bay – or looking to add some cracked legs and claws to a pot of cioppino – keep a bib, fork and some drawn butter on standby.

Last year, Central California’s Dungeness crab season, which starts annually in November and winds down in March, endured some rocky moments by comparison. Crab fishermen underwent an 11-day mid-season strike after haggling with wholesalers over prices, and bad weather in Northern California led to temporary shortages in an industry that generates an average $24 million annually in dock sales.

California’s home to many species of crab, including yellow rock crab and slender crab. But the Dungeness crab reigns as king due to its heartiness – about 25 percent of its weight is meat – and abundance near the California coast.

This year’s opening weekend wasn’t all smooth sailing. High winds prevented many fishing boats from setting the pots that capture crabs. The tide has since turned for the better, and most local seafood retailers are flush with crabs. That includes midtown’s Sunh Fish market, a leading seafood supplier for Sacramento restaurants and a favorite spot for home cooks.

“So far it’s a great season mainly because it started on time and the pricing is fair,” said Nguyen Pham, owner of Sunh Fish. “Judging from the first shipment we received, a lot of the crabs are good sized. More importantly, they’re available. Even with the rough weather we were able to get what we wanted for a fair price.”

Expect fresh Dungeness crab prices to start around $4.99 per pound, which about matches the best prices seen in 2012.

The 2013-14 Dungeness crab season also includes recently installed regulations that seek to level the playing field for commercial fishers. A new law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown set trap limits between 175 and 500 pots, depending on a fisherman’s catches from previous years. Advocates for SB 369, as the bill was known, said the limits would prevent large out-of-state boats with thousands of traps from decimating the crab population early in the season.

Now that some of the fishing politics have been settled, let’s talk about how to pick a fresh crab from the tank. A spunky crab will always be a better choice than one that’s playing wallflower.

Either way, go the fresh route over pre-cooked crab when possible.

“If it’s swimming in the tank, you know it’s fresh,” Pham said. “When you buy a cooked crab you don’t know how long ago it was cooked. It could’ve been sitting there for a week, or even come from last season.”

Most home cooks want a plump, meaty crab that weighs 2 pounds or more. If possible, some like to pinch the crab legs first to determine the quality.

“The old-school belief was that if the leg feels squishy, it’s watery and not full of meat,” Pham said.

Dealing with a live crab can be a little tricky once it’s home in the kitchen. But here’s something you can do to prevent the situation from turning into a battle royal of Cook vs. Crab.

“You want to throw the bag (with the crab) in the freezer for 15 minutes,” Pham said. “That makes them tense up so they don’t move as fast.”

Cooking a whole crab doesn’t take much more than about 12 minutes in a pot of boiling salted water, plus cracking and cleaning the guts. Be mindful of over-salting the boiling water, since the crab essentially comes pre-salted from its time in the sea.

Once cooked and cleaned, it’s time to eat. The sweet and rich crab meat certainly can be turned into the centerpiece of a pasta dish, salad, or a key ingredient for mac ‘n’ cheese. But Dungeness crab is perhaps enjoyed straight out of the shell, dipped in a bit of drawn butter and accompanied by fresh sourdough bread.

That’s close to the Dungeness crab preparation that was recently added to the menu at Tuli Bistro. Peppers and other aromatics are also added to the cooking process, and the cracked crab pieces also get re-heated in a wood-burning oven for a smoky touch. Otherwise, the crab meat remains fairly un-doctored.

“It’s one of the local products that’s so good on its own that you don’t have to mess with it,” said Adam Pechal, chef and co-owner of Tuli Bistro. “That’s the way I like it: Crack and eat.”

Crab meat also lends itself to a glass of white wine. Chardonnay’s the traditional go-to choice in California, but look for a wine style that doesn’t go overboard. A highly stylized domestic chardonnay that’s laden with significant amounts of oak and buttery overtones can be more of a mouthful than intended with rich crab.

Opt for a chardonnay with prominent acidity, or even consider dry riesling or a bit of albarino.

Then get those crab claw crackers ready and dig into this signature seafood of the season.

“California Dungeness crab, it’s so sweet and good when you get it,” Pechal said. “It’s great Northern California dining.”