Food and beverages in this season of giving should pull friends together, not keep them fretting over which fork to use. So remember this one important rule for hosting that I learned from my mother: The food is never more important than the people eating it.
With that in mind, consider three of my favorite group dinners: crab feeds, steamed clams and REAL clam chowder.
Cooking Crab for a Crab Feed
The commercial crabbing season for our West Coast Dungeness is finally under way after a two-week delay. The No. 1 best way to enjoy crab is when it has just come from the sea and is alive and kicking when it comes in contact with boiling water. A live crab fresh from its habitat is in the ideal state for cooking. Short of those circumstances, all crab buying, cooking and eating involve some compromise.
Buying crabs kept alive in water tanks is a close second. And the third best way is obtaining crab that was cooked on the premises where you are buying it. Just make the crab monger swear to you that the crab was cooked within a few hours of purchasing. You'll be disappointed if you bring home cooked crab that has been frozen, which makes the meat tough and stringy; or was cooked the day before and has lost that fresh-from-the-sea flavor and texture.
When buying cooked, unfrozen crab, don't be shy. Smell it! There should not be a pronounced fishy odor. Then make certain the crab has a hard shell, which means it hasn't recently molted (a freshly molted crab will have less flavor and be watery in texture).
It's also a good idea to lift the crab. If it seems heavy for its size — like the heft of a juicy grapefruit versus a dried-out grapefruit — then it will be of better quality than one that seems somewhat light for its size. If you happen to spot barnacles on the shell, that's a good sign too, because it means the crab has lived in its shell for a long time and will have grown into it, resulting in lots of high-quality meat.
How many crabs should you buy? The general rule around our house is two people per crab, unless the crab is smaller than 11/2 pounds. Plus, I always throw in an extra crab "for the pot."
Another simple meal is a piping-hot bowl of steamer clams cooked in a delicious brew of water (or wine, or beer or broth) and seasonings. One twist that I discovered years ago involves a pile of fresh steamer clams and several bottles of your favorite porter.
Figure on 1 pound of fresh steamer clams per person.
Rinse the clams well. Place them in a large pot. Add cold water to 3 inches below the top of the clams. Now add enough porter to cover the clams. Throw in a fistful of peeled and chopped garlic and a couple of dried bay leaves.
Cover the pot and place it on a burner over medium-high heat. It will be done when it boils over and you hear the burner go "sssssss." If you catch it before that, well then, good for you!
At this point, remove the pot from the heat, discard any clams that haven't opened and serve. Alongside the clams, make sure you've got plenty of great-quality, artisanal bread and any of the leftover porter (or your favorite craft brew). For the wine drinkers, a nice Oregon gewurztraminer would be a delightful choice.
Real Clam Chowder
What I love about starting with fresh, live clams when making chowder is that the flavor and texture is so wonderful. I like a traditional chowder that includes bacon and potatoes, with a medium amount of thickness. This one really fits the bill.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.