We love the late fall and early winter holiday season because it means it’s finally Dungeness crab season again! So when I read that San Francisco was back in its crabby season, and the Dungeness was finally safe to consume (unlike the last couple of years), we also read it’s a great year for Dungeness crab. We couldn’t wait to indulge in some succulent fresh crab. After I was told in a phone call to one purveyor they had fresh crabs, I practically shouted, really?! Dan and I ran right over to Morro Bay’s Embarcadero alongside the bay just to buy a fresh Dungeness crab.
Once there, the counter guys assured me their crabs had been cooked only 20 minutes earlier. The trouble is, I knew the truth when the crab they sold me wasn’t anywhere near warm. Still, I hoped for the best! At least the crab looked pretty good, not too beat up by its rough lifestyle of living in the tank amongst its fellow crabs. I would later learn if you see dark, blackish looking spots on the shell, that means it’s been in a tank far too long. The crab I chose was small but it’s shell looked pretty clean, not too beat up or spotty from “tank aging.”
Unfortunately, the truth came out about that crab after I had opened the thick plastic bag. The crab top shell that I had thrown in the garbage quickly gave off the odd ammonia smells, like a bad crab. We could only eat the best parts, the thicker section of the legs which tasted clean, but the lower leg parts were over-cooked. The next day I ended up throwing out the joint parts, which also stank foul. Then, I was truly crabby! Oddly enough, the seafood merchant had already gutted the crab, which I always blame for making the meat go bad quickly. Yet we threw out more than we could eat of that two-pound Dungeness crab.
So I complained, quite loudly on Facebook, and boy was I glad I did. Entrepreneur Giovanni DeGarimore of the famed Giovanni’s Seafood Market responded by telling me, “I can teach you how to pick the perfect crab.” I asked by private message, how about tomorrow, and the congenial Giovanni agreed. I was so excited, and with good reason. Giovanni spent nearly two hours taking us through the entire process, from choosing a live crab to cooking, cleaning, and eating it. To my surprise he showed me better ways to serve the crab, which helps even when the eater has to crack it out of the shell (instructions coming at the end of this column).
We started our cooking lesson out in the front of his market, where he fearlessly grabbed the live critters out of the tank (unlike most of us, that is, some of them lose the rubber bands that secure their very strong claws) to point out how to tell if the crab had molted recently or if it had aged in its shell a while. He instructed us to feel the upper leg on the one (behind the claw) to make sure it feels hard, not soft like a young crab. He also noted the best tasting crabs feel heavy for their size. In this case, smaller is not better.
If the bottom of the crab is really white, or pale yellow like the one on the left side in this photo, that means it molted recently (lost its small young shell to grow into a bigger shell). That also means it is NOT going to be at its best for eating since it had been weak and scrawny while it grew into its new shell. Not only did those smaller, light weight crabs have less meat, as we discovered while tasting them with Giovanni, it was watery. Far from the sweet, succulent crab I love that needs no adornment like drawn butter or cocktail sauce. The crab on the right side was far tastier, even though Giovanni admitted he had tasted better crabs, and I had to agree with him on that. Yet the darker-color on the second crab did prove to be better to eat.
Now get this, Giovanni noted: “If you find a crab with barnacles on the outer shell, they are the best choice because they have probably been in the shell at least two years.” The reason: When the shell is very hard there’s more meat inside and they have more fat which makes the meat taste much better.
He also taught me that I could clean the crab before cooking it, like you would gut any fish you were going to cook whole. “My dad always believed in killing the crab first to remove the guts before cooking it,” Giovanni explained, using a mallet to hit the crab on the small flap underneath the belly, attached to the rear end of the crab. Then you lift off the top of the crab, revealing the finger-like gills and guts, the mouth on the front and the tail end, removing all of it so all that’s left are the joints with the legs attached. Although he cooked one that was cleaned and the other two were cooked intact, I couldn’t tell the difference in taste. Then again, it was most likely because they had just been swimming five minutes earlier.
We learned the tank in the lead photo is brand new, it cost Giovanni $5,000 to replace the former one. He admitted people love it when they see him or his crew out there cooking crabs. While he can cook many crabs at once, they go into the boiling vat in mesh bags making it easier for the cooks to retrieve your order. At home, you shouldn’t try to cook too many at once as it impacts the cooking time.
For the pre-cleaned crab, Giovanni suggested cooking it for only 15 minutes, but the full-sized crabs required 18 to 20 minutes. He noted there should be no purplish color on the shell when it’s done cooking. Purple streaking indicates the crab isn’t fully cooked, it should be bright orange all over the top shell when it’s done. I’ve also noted when cooking live crabs at home (they don’t scream but I think it’s more humane to chill them down in the refrigerator or freezer so they go to sleep before dropping them into the boiling water), they fall to the bottom of the pot and begin floating to the top when they are done. Giovanni said they throw their freshly cooked crabs into a vat of ice water to stop the cooking process. “You can over-cook a crab which burns the shell and ruins the crab meat,” Giovanni explained.
When cleaning the crab for serving, he showed me how to take the half portion and slice it apart between the leg joints. That way you provide the leg with the joint attached in a way that’s much easier to eat.
Giovanni said he prefers a dip that’s warm, like melted butter, if he’s eating crab that has just been cooked. Myself, I don’t have the same preference, we enjoy a good cocktail sauce with a good kick of horseradish and fresh lemon juice to enjoy with the crab hot or cold. That said, when we find the perfect, sweet, succulent crab, we can eat it on its own, we still do some light dipping. After all, it’s the taste of the crab we love most.
While we thanked Giovanni profusely for this killer crabby experience, I had to admit to him: I never learned any of that when I attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. “The charismatic Giovanni chuckled and said, “I’ll bet they never taught you that much about chickens either.” We all broke up!
Learn more about Giovanni’s Fish Market in Morro Bay at www.giovannisfishmarket.com
Kathy and Dan Hardesty