IT'S TIME TO GET CRACKING IF YOU WANT TO ENJOY TASTIEST CRAB OF SEASON - BY
Let Maine boast of lobsters, Florida of stone crabs, Louisiana of crawfish.
Northern California has Dungeness crab, a celebrated crustacean that rivals them all.
Plucked straight from the Pacific, cooked, cleaned and cracked within hours, Dungeness crab is one of the region's greatest contributions to good eating.
Long before Northern California became a culinary mecca, food lovers reveled in the meaty Dungeness with its sweet, moist flesh and briny tang.
Now is the time to savor this hard-shelled gift from the sea. Although the Northern California season legally runs from mid-November to June, the commercial supply starts tapering off later this month, when the catch dwindles and crabbers begin shifting their sights to other species. Even though the crabbers' strike in the first weeks of this season pushed prices up, the best buys - and the freshest crab - should be available about now.
The crab, which gets its name from a small fishing village on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, is found from Alaska to Santa Barbara. Alaska opens its season first, in the summer. Washington and Oregon follow. California, where Dungeness was a $13.5 million industry in 2000, is the last.
Michael Sabella, whose great-grandfather began fishing out of San Francisco in the late 1880s, grew up eating crab and working in his family's Fisherman's Wharf restaurant. He contends that local crab is the best because it's hauled in by small day boats, which must return every day from fishing the frigid waters off the Farallon Islands.
'They're fresher, they're more alive' said Sabella, who owns Sabella's Italian Market and delicatessen on West Portal Avenue in San Francisco.
'Some people tank them and feed them,' he noted, 'but then you lose all the wildness of the crab.'
Besides, with the price of Dungeness running from $8 to $12 a crab (or $3.99 to $5.99 per pound) at supermarkets, who wants to offer competition to the sweet, tender meat?
Armed with a slender fork to tease the last morsel of meat out of the claws, I'm in heaven.
A big round loaf of sourdough and a bottle of dry riesling complete the meal.
A green salad is nice, but not essential.
I understand the impulse, but it makes me queasy. I'd probably be a vegetarian if I had to confront all my meals eye to eye. So I usually get my crab freshly cooked from a reliable fishmonger.
If you're feeling especially self-indulgent, you might consider Sabella's garlic roasted crab. He gives the naked crab a generous cloak of butter and a bit of a kick from garlic and Pernod. The recipe is fairly simple, and gives the crab star billing. To make it easier, I ask my fishmonger to blanch and clean the crab for me.
Still, some people feel incomplete as cooks if they haven't done something to dress up their food. For these people, there are crab cakes.
We offer here a tried-and-true version of crab cakes for those who must mess with their ingredients. Unlike many such recipes, this one is more crab than filler and the cakes come out crunchy on the outside and moist inside.
However you eat your Dungeness, do it soon, before local crabs no longer can be found in the market. You can't really call yourself a Northern Californian until you've experienced the region's revered shellfish.