A Crabbing Story from Chef Bill
Even before my teenage years, before the rest of the family woke up, I would push the 14 foot Aluminum Boat with 6 horsepower Evinrude off the beach into Nelson Bay, a pristine bay looking toward Canada over the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I would fire up the ol’ Evinrude and as quickly as my little boat could go, make my way to Westcott Bay. We used to call Westcott Bay by the name of Dungeness Bay (not the real one) because it was full of crab. There I found the bright orange float buoy with my family name Ranniger written down its side. I knew about where I would find it, left there the twelve hours before.
Usually, I loaded my crab pot with the heads and bones from the fish I caught during the day, usually rockfish and ling cod. We would filet the fish and with ropes and chicken wire secure the scraps from the fish to the bottom of the pot. If the fish float to the top of the pot, the crab will just crawl on top of the cage and crawl off when you start pulling it up. Picking the spot to drop the pot was always a bit of luck, a little divine intervention, some history and gut feeling. Sometimes the “spot” was just to stay out of the way of other motor boats that could cut the line to the buoy. We had lost some crab pots that way. Depth didn’t seem to really matter, but some believe if it got to shallow, you get smaller crab.
We called it “Christmas Morning Pull.” That’s why I woke up so early. When you reach over and start pulling up the pot, it is like Christmas, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. Some pots are full and some have none. But, it’s on to the next great “spot” and drop the pot down again. Some pots are heavy and when it gets close to the surface you see nothing but brown, a full pot. Full pots can be mis-leading, like a big box at Christmas, not always filled with things you want. They have to be male, all females get thrown back to make more crab. They also need to be at least 6 inches across the shell to be large enough to keep. I have had pots with up to 15 crabs and only one or two were “keepers.” Most of the time there is a mix of male and female, just like everything in life and in my experience about ½ are big enough to keep. Every once in a while you can pull a pot with 5 crabs and keep ‘em all, that’s a “good spot.” When I was younger, I was actually quite afraid of these tasty dudes, with their funky eyes, barbed legs and claws. They are pretty intimidating looking and getting your finger in the way of their pinchers can leave a distinctive bruise. Throwing back the females and too small to harvest crabs requires some nerve and very careful movements.
Harvest time, after sorting them out, freeing the women and children, counting all my fingers to make sure nothing was lost along the way, it was time to share the harvest. Crabs need to be cooked alive, so as soon as I got back to shore, I filled a bucket with salt water, brought it to a boil, put the crabs in and cooked them for approximately 12 minutes (7 minutes per pound) with a lid slightly open for circulation. Look the crab in the eye, lie to them, tell them it is a hot tub party. Drop them down head first into boiling water; they won’t know what hit ‘em. Don’t try to cook too many at a time. And if you are serving cold, put them in an ice bath as soon as you take them out of the crab pot. We always served them cold. Icing them down, cleaning them and serving with melted butter. When we had company we might have served with fresh garlic or lemon in the butter, but for me, not necessary. Part of the fun was spreading newspapers out, giving everyone a hammer to crack shells and just go for it. Wine was served to anybody that wanted it. These days I would recommend a good crisp Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc. Back then, I remember a box of white but we’re all grown up now. That, along with the fish caught (usually made into Fish and Chips), a good tartar and cocktail sauce was our little ship of heaven.
Crab Month at Dukes runs between March 21st and May 8th. We are offering 10 delicious ways of enjoying these sweet, firm crabs. Whole cooked and chilled, by the ½ or full crab or share a whole crab with salads and chowders. Of course, we are featuring our “Un”Cakes (all crab, cake not so much) as an appetizer or dinner entrée. You can also enjoy a crab “Un”Cake with Weathervane Scallops and marinated Wild Mexican White Shrimp. Don’t forget about Crab and Prawn Cocktails served with Dukes Vodka Cocktail sauce. Crab and Prawn Gnocchi is another favorite, served with a Rose sauce. There are many other too numerous to mention. But I promise a very crabby party.
So I want to thank all the crabs in the past and all that pass my lips soon, I’ve really enjoyed you.
Executive Chef “Wild” Bill Ranniger, Duke’s Chowder House