Oregonians deserving of that title anticipate this season as eagerly as home gardeners pine for ripe tomatoes and Rogue Valley residents cherish the pear harvest.
Dungeness crab is one of the state's most prized commodities, one that became commercially available later than usual this winter. Following some record-catch years when the fishery kicked off in early December, this year's start was delayed until New Year's Eve, so the crustaceans could fill out their shells.
Thus, the holidays for many Dungeness devotees, like members of my clan, passed without a traditional crab feast. No crab-cracking around the newspaper-swathed dining-room table. No salads laden with fry legs and Louis dressing. No family-recipe casserole spooned over English muffins.
While the wait seemed particularly protracted for everyone who includes crab in their festive spreads, the season happily is a long one, extending into summertime. And recreational crabbing, of course, is open in Oregon bays year-round.
2 cooked, whole Dungeness crabs
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2/3 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup chopped green onion (green parts only)
1/3 cup olive oil
Clean and crack the crabs, keeping legs attached to their respective body segments. Using back of a heavy knife, crack shells of each leg joint (without breaking them into pieces) to allow marinade to penetrate. Place in a large mixing bowl.
In a mortar and pestle, grind the fennel seeds, red-pepper flakes, black peppercorns and salt to a powder (some spices will stay more intact). Add the parsley and green onion and grind to a coarse pulp. Add the olive oil a little at a time until mixture becomes a wet, sticky sludge. (Or grind spices, parsley and green onions in a blender, then slowly add olive oil with motor running until you reach desired texture.)
Pour herb mixture over crabs and mix with your hands, making sure each piece is coated evenly. Refrigerate for at least an hour to allow crab to marinate.
Start a hot fire in grill. Empty mixing bowl onto grill and use tongs or a large spatula to distribute crab pieces in a single layer. Every 2 to 3 minutes, use tongs or spatula to scoop and turn crab pieces. Crab is grilled when traces of scorching show on shells and some of herb mixture has blackened, after about 6 to 7 minutes.
Alternatively, spread crab onto a rimmed baking sheet and broil until shells are lightly scorched and some herb mixture has blackened, for about 4 to 5 minutes. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 to 6 appetizer servings, 2 to 4 main-course servings.
My family missed such an opportunity over Thanksgiving weekend in the wake of foul weather (it's the South Coast!) and too much turkey and football competing for our time. While crabbing is something of a production, it's easy to take for granted the relative ease of catching crustaceans in traps set from a small boat or even bayside docks.
When I was growing up near Coos Bay, we capped off weekends of fine-weather crabbing by cooking our haul in its own saltwater medium over a bonfire on the beach. Wintertime more often sees us cooking crab at home over a portable, propane burner in the driveway. Either way, sully the kitchen once with crab stench, and you'll be a firm believer in keeping the mess outside.
Even if you don't catch your own, cooking crab yourself is the gold standard for freshness. The shellfish is a notoriously bad keeper — even frozen — making it unfit for the off-season availability of so many other ocean species. Handled in the home kitchen, Dungeness crab still should be consumed within just a couple of days. Copious tips for purchasing, cooking, cleaning and picking crab can be found at www.oregondungeness.org.
Indeed, a cache of live crab is the best coastal souvenir this time of year. Keep them on ice, not waterlogged, as they can survive only in oxygenated saltwater. Sporting purplish-brown shells before cooking, live Dungeness should be active and respond to stimulation.
In the Rogue Valley, live Dungeness can be purchased at The Butcher Shop in Eagle Point (541-830-3369), Rogue Valley Fresh Seafood Co. in Medford (541-944-7519), The Wharf Fresh Seafood Market & Eatery in Medford (541-858-0200) and some grocers. Call ahead for availability. Prices average $5 per pound.
Another source is Medford's RoxyAnn Winery, where Port Orford Sustainable Seafood makes deliveries. This co-op of fishermen worked with scientists, conservation groups and government entities to designate a stewardship area that covers 1,320 square miles, extending 30 miles north to south and 18 miles offshore of their home fishing grounds. The member boats bypass traditional wholesalers to reap more of their seafood's selling price. Not surprisingly, their heftiest harvest is Dungeness crab. See www.posustainableseafood.com.
After isolated Port Orford set a unique example in the state, Oregon's Dungeness crab fishery obtained sustainable-seafood status in 2010 from the Marine Stewardship Council, earning the first certification for Dungeness on the West Coast, including Canada and Alaska, and the third in the world.
Taste alone, though, is reason enough to eat Dungeness crab while the eating's good. And much as I hesitate to consult California cooks on the crustacean's preparation, this recipe from the Los Angeles Times could persuade me to toss some on the grill.
Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon can be reached at 541-776-4487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more tips, recipes and local food news, read her blog at mailtribune.com/wholedish