This is San Francisco. The night is a bit clearer and a touch warmer than most, but yeah, it’s San Francisco alright. Our little city has its share of unique and charming characteristics that can’t be found just anywhere. For now though, we’re after one in particular. Crabs! That’s right, with the proper provisions, just about anybody can catch crabs, day or night, in the cold moist shadow of the Golden Gate.
On this fine occasion, Jason, Dan, Hanz and I were about to see the beginning of high tide, 2am. Dan had a few snapper heads saved up in the freezer; just about as good a crab bait as I know of. Quick enough our nets were scattered about the pier and we were all four of us busy loading some chunk of fish flesh into our baskets. It’s not much of a trick really; load your basket with crab food, tie up the one end and chuck the other end in the water. All that’s left is to saddle up with a chilled beverage of your liking and wait for dinner. By the time you’ve finished you’re first cold-frosty (15-20 minutes), it should be time to pull.
We put out the chairs and sit around, talking about food and cooking in some small part, but mostly just making fun of each other and drinking and eating chips and all. Time goes by pretty fast this way.
When it hits you, like the sound of a trailing thought or an aluminum can running dry, you grab the rope and start hauling. Once you feel that net leave the sea floor, you don’t stop pulling until you see the hatred in those beady little tentacles.
The first pull was above average. Plenty of rock crabs, 3 or 4 of legal size, and one thick-old Dungeness. Being a she, we had to throw her back. The nets recast and back to talking. Out come the cigars. Rolling and puffing in the breeze. Hanz never lit a cigar before and I can’t say he has yet, just some nice warm leaves to chew on. Who lights a cigar with a miniature BIC anyway?
I had to take a leak, slipped off to the other side of the pier and over the edge to the ledge below, hovering just a few feet above the surface of the bay. A gentle trickle about the old solid beam. Just pissin in the water, a cigar rockin between my teeth.
Under the pier, the wandering voices above, a Golden Gate glowing one side and the darkness of Angel Island straight ahead, echoing tides swirl around in the flickering moonlight. Experience, I suppose, is a complete sort of thing. Time for the second haul.
California crab fishing regulations are based on three specifications, each starting with the letter “S” (size, sex, and season). We’ll throw species in there for a fourth “S,” to even things out. When you’ve got your crabs out of the water, pinch one up from behind (watch out for claws) and take a look.
In and around San Francisco, you will come across a number of crab species, but we can easily divide them into two groups. First, we have the Dungeness crab,
The Dungeness, Metacarcinus magister, is our local commercial stock. You’ve probably seen it on ice in your grocery store or in an aquarium down on Fisherman’s Wharf. Note the white-tipped, saw-toothed pincers. Additionally, the last segment of the tail, located underneath the crab (see sex-determination photo below), is rounded. That rounded tail segment is the most telling characteristic of the Dungeness crab.
The second group should include virtually any species you come across that is not a Dungeness.
Pictured at right is the common red rock crab, Cancer productus. Note the black-tipped pincers with minimal serration.
Rock crabs are not fished commercially, as they have a tougher shell and yield less meat than Dungeness. Rock crab tends to have a sweeter more delicate flavor though, so even if they require extra work, the end result is just as good, if not superior.
Only those crabs which exceed the minimum requirement of 5 ¾” for Dungeness, or 4″ for rock crabs, may be taken. Crabs are measured across the length of the back like so…
This “S” applies only to Dungeness. Rock crabs can be fished year-round. The Dungeness crab season, designed to protect the crabs when they are molting, runs from the first Saturday of November through June 30 each year.
Flip a crab over and you can see a triangular piece of shell pressed up against its abdomen. They call this a tail, but it’s more like some kind of crab shaft protector or something. If somebody can tell me what it’s actually for, I’d appreciate that greatly. For now, we’ll just refer to the extremely scientific drawings below. As you can see, male crabs have the narrower, “dong protector,” and female crabs have a wider, well the females have a crab chocha instead of a crab peewee, so that would make it more of a, “chocha protector,” or, for purposes of simplification, “dong deflector.” Note that these two crabs have rounded tails, indicating that they are both of the Dungeness variety.
We stole these creatures from their homes, now we shall bring them justice. I boil my sea-bugs. That’s just the way I’ve always done it. You can steam them if you want. I don’t care. Just please don’t overcook them. Far too many people in this world think that crabs need to be extremely overcooked.
Put a big enough pot of water on high heat to submerge all those dirty fucking sea-bugs you just pulled out of our piss-filled bay. Quickly add some shit to your cooking liquid, perhaps a pinch of salt, some old bay, a piece of star anise, or maybe just a couple of chopped white onions and a head of fennel. I like to keep it simple with the onion and fennel, but it’s all up to you. Now rinse your bugs thoroughly and spend a little time with them before they go. Name them if you please.
When your pot reaches a boil, drop your sea-bugs in there one by one with a prayer and a few choice words in good faith. Cover the pot, and don’t leave. Get your timer ready to go. When your water returns to a boil, reduce it to a simmer, and set your timer for 8 minutes. Still don’t leave. Get another pot and fill it with ice water. Grab some tongs and watch your water simmer. When your timer goes off, go in there with your tongs and rip off a claw. Crack it, pull out the meat, and eat it. If it tastes good, and it should, they are done. Float them on their backs into ice water. Positioning them on their backs allows their internal liquids to pool into their carapace (i.e. upper shell) as they cool. Reserve the cooking liquid for stock, unless it’s too heavily seasoned. You’ve now completed the first stage.
Now for the break down procedure. To do this right, you need to think like a machine. This is no time to get creative and go with the flow. Grab a beer and get to work. First, you peel off the dong protector. (note the pointed nature of this crab’s dong protector, indicating that he is not a Dungeness), This is like the crab’s beer-tab. Don’t be shy, stick your fingers in there and rip that shit open. Now that the dong protector is removed, stick your pinky in the gap at the base of his carapace and lift. Do this over an empty bowl or pot in order to collect all of the the liquid that spills out. As you lift, the body and legs of the crab should separate from the carapace. Now hold the carapace and scrape out that orange-green liquid using your fingers. That stuff is a digestive organ called hepatopancreas. The Department of Fish and Game says that crab hepatopancreas, also known as, “crab butter,” can contain high levels of chemicals, and should be avoided. Do yourself a favor and find a fresh loaf of sourdough to dip in there. I don’t know if it’s the hepatopancreas or the chemicals, but that shit tastes good. Good and healthy may not always mix, but I can still sleep at night. It’s a good idea to press that hepatopancreas through a sieve with a spatula to smooth it out and remove any bits of grit or shell.
If you take a look at the picture at left, you can see the crab butter in a pot on the left, the carapace to right, and in that green square is the body and lungs. You need to remove and discard the crab’s lungs, which are the spongy-looking cones that run alongside the body. They should tear away easily. Crab lungs, like crab butter, contain high levels of chemicals. The difference, and the reason we throw them away, is that crab lungs don’t taste good.
Next, we can start taking these fools apart. Separate the legs from the body first. If you twist the legs properly, rotating as you pull the innermost joint outwards and towards what would have been the top of the crab, you can remove the joint entirely, making it a little easier to get at the body meat, or, “lump meat,” in the next step. But this takes a little practice.
Having removed the legs, separate each into it’s five segments. The extreme ends of the legs, composed of the feet and the innermost joints can all be discarded as they contain very little if any meat. The rest of the pieces can be grouped together and cleaned. The center knuckle can be cleaned by some gentle teasing with a wooden skewer. The knuckle is often overlooked as labor-intensive, but can yield a significant amount of quality meat. The two remaining pieces can then be cracked gently and also cleaned with a wooden skewer.
Once you’ve got your crabs cleaned up, take the shells and simmer them in the reserved cooking liquid for about an hour. Cool and strain and you’ve got a good crab stock that you can use later on for a soup or a pasta or chawanmushi or anything else you can think of.
Now eat breakfast, wash your bowls, and get some sleep.