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Now is prime time for choice crab

It was three days after Christmas and the first day of decent weather in a week.

The good news in that scenario was that crab boats, which had been tied up at the docks during the last storm, were finally leaving Newport Bay in search of our favorite winter crustacean. They'd return to harbor in 18 hours.

But, of course, our crab feast was in eight hours. So we renamed it the No-Crab Feast and went to Plan B. Appetizers and a big salad.

Happily, it's been smooth sailing, relatively speaking, ever since those last days of December. So supplies of fresh, local Dungeness crab have been good.

Crab season along the Oregon coast began on Dec. 1 and will continue through Aug. 14. The peak harvest, however, according to the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission (www.oregondungeness.org) occurs during the first eight weeks of the season, with up to 75 percent of the annual production landed during this period. So the next few weeks are prime crab feasting time.

Only mature male crabs measuring 61/4 inches across the shell are harvested. Juvenile males and all females are returned to the sea to ensure healthy stocks for future harvests. Even so, the Dungeness crab industry in Oregon is a cyclical business.

Reasons for the fluctuations that range from as much as 33 million pounds to as little as 3.2 million aren't completely known. Some biologists speculate the crabs themselves contribute to the cycle because of their cannibalistic nature. But we won't go there.

For size, Dungeness falls between its East Coast cousin, the blue crab, and the Alaskan king crab. On average, the Dungeness weighs in from 11/2 to 31/2 pounds, whereas its Alaskan buddy can come as large as 20 pounds, with a leg span of nearly 6 feet. The genteel blue crab rarely grows larger than a pound.

Although in the middle size-wise, I believe Dungeness is the hands-down winner for flavor and texture. Only during its molting season, from August through October, is the Dungeness less than perfect. After shedding its shell, it absorbs large amounts of water, which dilute its flavor and undermine its texture.

But that's nothing to be concerned with right now while fresh, robust, thick-shelled specimens abound. So ready up the crab pot. Crab Feed Season has begun.

THE NUMBER-ONE BEST WAY TO BUY CRAB: Dungeness crab is never better than when it has just come from the sea. A live crab fresh from its habitat is in the ideal state for cooking. (If you've never cooked live crab and would like instructions, send an e-mail to janrd@proaxis.com.) Short of those circumstances, all crab buying, cooking and eating involve some compromise, which leads to ...

THE SECOND BEST WAY TO BUY CRAB: Buying crabs kept alive in water tanks is a close second, so check out your local fish market and see if they're stocking live crabs.

Since this is an extremely popular time of year for crab feeds, it's always a good idea to phone ahead and place your order or at least check to see how their supply is holding up.

If you fancy a trip to the coast, then drop by your favorite bay-front where crabbing boats are unloading.

THE THIRD BEST WAY TO BUY CRAB: Cooked crab is your final option, but it's a frustrating one because you can get burned on quality if the crabs aren't fresh. Here in Corvallis, my local fish shop cooks their live crabs on the premises, so I know they're fresh.

But I steer clear of places that can't tell you where - or even when - their crabs were cooked. When buying cooked crab, don't be shy. Smell it! There should not be a pronounced, fishy odor.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com.

RECIPE: Tomato-pesto Mayonnaise for Crab

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons minced yellow onion

11/4 cups peeled, seeded and chopped tomato (use Roma tomatoes if possible)

Salt, to taste

Black pepper, to taste

2 cups mayonnaise

1 teaspoon commercially prepared or homemade pesto (more to taste)

1 tablespoon brandy (optional)

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a small skillet. Add the onion and gently saute until the onion turns a light golden brown and is lightly caramelized. This will take about 10 minutes. Don't scorch the onions by cooking over too high heat.

Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper; adjust the temperature to about medium-high and continue simmering until the tomato mixture has softened and all of the liquid released by the tomatoes has cooked away, creating a thick mixture, which will take 15 to 20 minutes. Scrape the mixture into a mixing bowl and set aside until cool.

Mix in the mayonnaise, pesto and brandy, if using, and adjust seasonings, adding additional pesto, salt and pepper as needed.

Chill until ready to serve. May be made and refrigerated up to a week ahead.

Makes about 31/2 cups.