When in Northern California, do as the Humboldtians do, go crabbing. Except when there is a harmful red tide going on. Then you don’t go crabbing. You go eating. But here’s what to do when you can go back in.
Crab. Dungeness Crab. Metacarcinus magister. Named by the English Naval Captain George Vancouver after the arrowhead-shaped headland in Kent, England, this super middleweight gets its name from the town of Dungeness in Washington’s Juan de Fuca Strait, the watery border between the U.S. and Canada. Native only of the Pacific coast with commercial fisheries from Alaska to Point Conception, California, “Dungies” are trap-caught, which allows for the release of bycatch (inadvertent fish caught in trap), and therefore considered sustainable by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.
There is a small window in the latter part of the year which allows the recreational fisherman a chance to mine the golden ore of coastal bays before the commercial fleet has a chance to set pots toward their Total Allowable Catch or TAC. Though in most areas, there is no set quota but instead, fishermen are only allowed to land male crabs over 6 1/4 inches. To catch Dungies, crabbers set baited pots attached to numbered buoys and wait. We were waiting in sea-kayaks 500 yards from the beach off of Humboldt Bay, a deep water bay famous for big swells, rocks galore and lots of sealife.
A bisque, traditionally made of shellfish, is the French way, ever frugal and resourceful, of using the leftover bits of seafood too ugly for sale at the fish market. Twice cooked–the shells of the crabs, after boiling for 15 minutes, and cracking, are initially roasted in the oven to release the heady sea salt funk flavor you crave. Then, after constructing the framework of the base are added to the soup only at the end to fortify the peaty ocean taste of wind and seaspray in your face as you stand on the cliff’s edge and face oblivion. So get down to business: got your crab permit? Crab pot? Bait? Flask o’ whisky? Wet Suit? Check. Now get out there and get back here to make your woman some, no not soup, nay, bisque de la mer. Crack open some hearty brew while yer at it…
California Dungeness Crab Bisque
Yield: Serves 6.
- Stockpot full of crab shells
- 3/4 cup dry white wine
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped
- 1 carrot, roughly chopped
- 1 celery stalk, roughly chopped
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste
- 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
- Several sprigs fresh parsley
- 1 bay leaf
- 15 whole peppercorns
- 2 teaspoons fancy foreign seasalt
- 1 habanero chile
- 2 Tbsp butter, unsalted
- 1/3 cup shallots, chopped
- 3/4 cup dry white wine (Oregon Pinot Grigio, Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc)
- 4 cups of shellfish stock
- ¼ cup white rice
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste
- 2 lb or more of cooked crabmeat
- 1 habanero chile
- 1 ¼ cup heavy cream
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Making the crab stock:
- Preheat the oven to 400. After boiling crab, remove meat and set aside. Break crab shells into smaller pieces by putting in a sealed, thick plastic bag and smashing with a tenderizer. You will want to roast crab shells until you can smell the crabby sea emanating throughout your kitchen.
- Remove from oven and place in stock pot, slowly heating the shells in the water, until little bubbles boil up to the surface, and reduce the heat. Do not let it boil, rather maintain the temperature at a simmer. As stirring up the pot can bring about trouble, do not bother the shells too much. Eventually the surface will develop a film of foam – skim this away. Let the shells cook for an hour, skimming the foam every few minutes, until little remains.
- Put the thyme, bay leaves, and parsley in cheese cloth to make the bouquet garni.
- After the foam has abated, add the wine, onions, carrots, celery, tomato paste, herb bouquet garni, peppercorns and the habanero. Continue to simmer for 30 minutes. Skim off foam as it rises. Add salt and remove from heat.
- Strain through a large, fine mesh strainer, over a large bowl and discard the solids. Use the stock right away, and freeze the rest (remember to leave at least two fingers of room at the top of your freezer container for the liquid to expand as it freezes.)
- Makes 2-3 quarts. Reserve 4 cups for the crab bisque.
Making the bisque:
- In a larger stockpot than you think you need, melt butter, add the shallots and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Add the wine, stock, rice, habanero and tomato paste. Raise the heat and bring to a simmer; reduce heat to continue to simmer until rice is completely cooked, about 25 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for several minutes.
- Pour into blender, adding two thirds of the crab meat to the mix. Purée until completely smooth and return to soup pot.
- Taste and add cream, gently heating soup until hot enough for serving, checking heat of habanero is not overpowering (if it is, add a touch more cream and deal with it…). Add the remaining one third of the crab meat. Add salt, fresh cracked black pepper and cayenne pepper to taste (about ½ teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne).