Feelin’ the itch

Henri rings in the new year with Dungeness crab

STACKS ‘O’ CRAB<br>It is the season, and on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, the catch is waiting for you.

It is the season, and on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, the catch is waiting for you.

It’s the New Year, Chico, and that means crab season. Give me a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, one of those Dungeness mauvais garçons, and Henri’s on cloud neuf.

The Dungeness crab is named for the fishing village of Dungeness, Wash., one of the first places—along with San Francisco—to begin harvesting it, in 1848. Native to North America’s Pacific coast, the Dungeness ranges from the Aleutian Islands to the Morro Bay area, where the water begins to grow significantly warmer. The Central California crab district stretches from Monterey Bay to Point Arena.

Crab season traditionally opens in early November, runs through June, and is at its peak in late December, making crab a favorite holiday and classic New Year’s meal.

Catches tend to fluctuate dramatically from season to season, based on five-year cycles. According to the state Fish and Game records, in the 2005-06 season, the commercial crab catch totaled about 24 million pounds, the second-largest in California since 1915, when the state began keeping track, but fell to 13.5 million pounds in 2006-2007 and 8.4 million pounds last season. Unfortunately, this season didn’t get off to a very strong start. Crab has been retailing for around $7/lb. in Chico, although Colette found it at Safeway for $3.99 shortly before Christmas.

Of course, the best way to eat crab is right out of the shell, perhaps dipped in melted butter. And it’s so delicious that it seems almost criminal to lose it in dishes with other ingredients. That said, some of Henri’s very favorite recipes include crab. Nothing like a good cioppino with French sourdough bread on a cold winter’s night. And one of my very favorite sandwiches: crab and avocado with mayonnaise on sourdough. Divine.

I also love crab Louie, which despite the old commercials, is the real San Francisco treat—if not invented in The City at least made famous there, in the early 20th century. I doubted Colette the other day when she told me she was going to make crab enchiladas, but they were absolutely delicious.

Henri’s Crab Louie
Salad Ingredients
1 head iceburg lettuce, shredded
1 pound fresh crab meat
2 tomatoes, quartered
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered
4 asparagus stalks, cut in inch-long pieces

Dressing Ingredients
1 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup ketchup
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons green onions, minced
2 tablespoons parsley, minced
1 tablespoon green bell pepper, minced
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon prepared horseradish

Make beds of lettuce on small plates or in shallow bowls. Divide crab and pile on top. Combine dressing ingredients and spoon over crab. Garnish with tomatoes, asparagus and hard-boiled eggs.

Colette’s Crab Enchiladas
8 flour tortillas
1 1/2 cups cream
12-16 ounces crab meat (3-4 crabs)
1 cup green onions
1 4-ounce can chopped green chiles
3 ounces cubed cream cheese
1 10-ounce can enchilada sauce
1 1/2 cup jack cheese, grated

Pour one cup cream into large pan, and place tortillas in one by one to soak. Pour 1/2-cup cream into large baking dish. In large bowl, combine green onions, crab meat, chiles and cream cheese until well blended. Roll tortillas around crab meat mixture (about a half cup per enchilada), and place side by side in baking dish. Cover with remaining cream and foil and bake 15 minutes at 400. Remove foil, sprinkle cheese over enchiladas and bake for five more minutes. Heat enchilada sauce, pour over top, and serve.

This time of the year there are crab feasts and festivals up and down the coast, and crab dishes are frequently featured at restaurants throughout the West. This year marks the 10th annual Crab and Wine Festival in Mendocino, featuring crab and cioppino feeds, wine tastings and competitions, crab fishing trips, cooking classes and a crab-cake cook-off. For more information, go to www.gomendo.com/showrecord.asp?id=3629.

For information on responsible and sustainable seafood consumption, go to the Seafood Watch link at montereybayaquarium.org, where you’ll find “Best Choices,” “Good Alternatives” and those to “Avoid.” Dungeness crab is a Best Choice.