Henri’s got crabs

It’s the season for seafood, and Henri’s creamy fish chowder

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

“There’s nothing like chowder, fresh crab and a bottle of Chardonnay for lunch.”

—John Konstantin, owner of John’s Grill in San Francisco (from the S. F. Chronicle, Nov. 29, 2005)

Absolutment, Monsieur Konstantin! Henri is in l’accord complet. Except that you’re forgetting an important ingredient: le nap!

Henri spent a fitful couple of weeks last month, worried that one of his tout-temps’ favorite lunches would be unavailable this year, or at least less convenient and more costly.

While the central (Bay Area) California Dungeness crab season ordinarily begins in mid-November, this season the Crab Boat Owners Association of San Francisco and Pacific Seafood of Oregon, the principal processor, couldn’t agree on a price. Fishermen were asking $1.85/lb., the processors were offering $1.50 (last year, crab fishermen were paid $1.70), and the only fresh crab available in Chico was from far northern California, Oregon and Washington—very good but more expensive. On Nov. 26, though, the two sides agreed to $1.75 and the first boats went out two days later. Excellent crab from the central California coast has been available locally—running about $5/lb.—since the first of December.

(Seasonal catches fluctuate greatly. Last year, central-coast crab fishermen brought in nearly 24 million pounds, the second-largest catch in California since 1915, when the state began keeping track, but in 2001-02 only 3.6 million pounds were caught between Monterey and the Oregon border.)

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 range 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. Assuming storms have not prevented the boats from going out, grocery stores and fish markets usually have the best crab at the best prices right around the holidays—the perfect time of the year for one of Henri’s—and Monsieur Konstantin’s—favorite meals.

Henri’s Creamy Fish Chowder
This rich one-pot dish is a variation on a traditional fish chowder and perfect with fresh, cracked crab, warm sourdough bread (preferably torn instead of sliced), a Caesar salad and a crisply chilled sparkling or white wine (Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc). Not only an excellent lunch, but a classic New Year’s Eve dinner. Serves six.

3-4 slices of bacon

1 large onion, minced

1-2 lbs. potatoes, cubed

1 quart fish stock

1-2 lbs. white fish, cut into one-inch pieces

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

six or eight sprigs parsley

1 tablespoon fresh chives

1 1/2 cups whipping cream (see note below)

freshly ground black pepper



Optional Ingredients
2 celery stalks, sliced

1/2 red or green bell pepper, chopped

3 leeks, sliced

Cut the bacon into half-inch squares and fry in deep saucepan until there’s enough fat to cook the vegetables. Add the onions and potatoes (and any of the optional vegetables), reduce heat, and cook without browning (about 10 minutes). Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour excess bacon fat from the pan, add fish stock, bring to boil and simmer until vegetables are cooked (15 to 20 minutes). Stir in the parsley, chives and fish. Stir the milk or cream into the pan and reduce heat—do not bring to boil—and cook until fish is cooked (two or three minutes). Serve immediately, topped with a pat of butter and sprig of fresh parsley.

Notes: 1) Any white fish (cod, haddock, halibut, snapper, etc., or any combination) will work. It’s best if fresh. You can also add shrimp or virtually any other fish or shellfish. 2) Chicken or vegetable stock may be substituted for the fish stock. 3) Although you will be sacrificing some of the decadent thickness and creaminess of this chowder, you can substitute a range of milks and other less fatty creams, from 2 percent to half-and-half, or even combine them. Nonfat milk, exclusively, is not recommended, however—its alleged health benefits do not compensate for the richness of a thicker chowder.

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. So is a nap.