We’re smack in the middle of crab season and the catch this year isn’t as good as in the past. There are fewer crabs and our crab people down at the Santa Cruz harbor just lost their fishing boat due to an accident. They're buying them from other fisherman and combined with the smaller harvest, prices have gone up across the board. But that didn’t stop Rory and I last Saturday. We grabbed our crab bucket and headed to the harbor.
In the Monterey Bay where we live, Dungeness crab is king. When I was growing up in Southern California, it was the smaller stone crab. You may enjoy blue crab where you are. Whatever breed of fresh, live crab that you have access to, eat them when they’re in season as they’ll be at their sweetest best. Buy them live (check Asian markets and ask local fishermen for sources) to ensure their freshness. Ask for the feistiest ones.
I do all kinds of things with the Dungies that we get – make Vietnamese dishes like bun rieu cua noodle soup, mien cua cellophane noodles with crab, and cua farci deviled crab. Sometimes we also just pile a bunch of the rich meat on a green salad and pour ourselves a crisp white wine.
Last weekend, we bought 3 crabs (7 pounds total!) and with one of them, I cooked in beer for a Vietnamese dish called cua hấp bia. Hấp means to steam and some cooks do steam their crab whereas other cooks boil them. I did something in between by simmering the crab in beer and aromatics so as to delicately cook the crab and infuse it with the seasonings.
The trick to this Vietnamese dish is to pre clean the crab so that you have all the edible parts separated out before the cooking. I’m squeamish about killing an animal with claws that can hurt me so I stun the crab beforehand and then have my way with him (male crabs are the ones caught for commercial sale). Then the cleaning is easy and un-dramatic. In the second cooking, you use a bottle of beer and some water so as to not dilute the delicious briny crab flavor.
Dungeness Crab in Beer Broth with Garlic and Chile
Cua Hấp Bia
Vietnamese beer is typically light and dry, like Asahi, Corona, Budweiser, and Heinneken. If you have some, for example, Saigon or 555, do use it. I used a dark lager the other day from Trader Joe’s (it was all I had) and it gave a slightly more complex flavor. The lighter beer would give a clean flavor. Choose your poison, so to speak.
Feel free to use whatever kind of live crab you can get your hands on. I wouldn’t go through the trouble of cleaning small blue crabs, but rather cook them whole, tripling the amount of seasonings and liquid. Enjoying seafood with a salt, pepper, lime dipping sauce (muoi tieu chanh) is a classic Viet approach. It sounds so simple and it's marvelously good.
My hunch is that the seasoning and beer may go well with mussels or manila clams. Don't precook the shellfish, just saute the aromatics, add the shellfish and liquid, cover and cook till they open, stirring occassionally.
Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a starter
1 large live Dungeness crab, 2 ¼ to 2 1/2 pounds
2 tablespoons canola oil
½ yellow onion, thinly sliced
4 or 5 cloves garlic, sliced
1 to 3 Thai chiles, slit lengthwise but not all the way through to keep the stem end intact
1 (12-ounce) bottle lager beer, light, medium or dark
About ½ cup water
1 to 2 teaspoons fish sauce
Salt, Pepper, and Lime Dipping Sauce (Muoi Tieu Chanh)
1. Fill a 5- or 6-quart pot two-thirds full with water and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Use tongs to grasp the crab at the rear. Holding it top side down, slide it head first into the pot. If it thrashes about, press down on it with the tongs until it is still. After its legs have completely folded inward, let it gently cook for 5 minutes longer. Transfer the crab to a baking sheet or platter. Set it aside for about 10 minutes, or until it is cool enough to handle.
2. Clean the crab. Put the crab, top side down, on the work surface. Pull off the claws and legs and set them aside on a plate or in a bowl.
Lift up and break off the triangular flap (the apron). Holding the crab down with one hand, pry off the body section with the other hand, lifting from the back hinge. Set the body section aside.
3. Discard the shell if you don’t want the tomalley (liver) and fat. Otherwise, pour out the liquid inside the shell, stopping short of the more solid, thickish contents, which is the greenish gold tomalley and white fat. Use a teaspoon to scrape the tomalley and fat into a small bowl and discard the empty shell. Set aside.
4. Discard the fang-shaped spongy gills on the body section. Snap off and discard the thin jaws. If present, discard the reddish membrane that covers the center and the squiggly white pieces underneath. Scrape out any additional tomalley from the body section with the spoon.
5. Use a knife to quarter the body section, adding the pieces to the pile of claws and legs.
6. Heat the oil in a 5-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic, stirring constantly until aromatic and slightly soft, about 1 minute. Add the chiles and stir for another 15 seconds, until fragrant. Add the crab and give things a big stir to combine.
Cook, for about 2 minutes to warm up the crab. Add the beer and water. There should be enough liquid to come up about ¾ of the crab. Add water, if extra is needed. Bring to a simmer, adjust the heat as needed, and cover. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure cooking, until the crab is cooked through. The flesh in the body sections is solid white.
7. Transfer the crab to a serving bowl. Taste the broth and add the fish sauce as needed to impart a savory goodness. Serve with the salt, pepper and lime wedges for guests to compose their own dipping sauce. Invite guests to sip the cooking broth too, and to dip the crab in it!
Crab picking tip: When picking crab, use a nut cracker to crack the shell and the pointy tip of the leg to remove the meat from the crevices.