“I can get dead ones from Costco cheaper…” was the return email from childhood friend, Marcus. Oh, and he added that he didn’t have a pot, but could buy one. We weren’t coming all the way from Japan just to eat dead crabs, so I told him to buy the pot and I’d buy the crab. I’d say he got off well.
Crab is one of those foods I crave when going to California. Dungeness crab and Tomales Bay oysters, actually. Japanese fish is hands down fresher and tastier than American fish (sorry guys, it’s a no-brainer). It all starts with the fisherman. Japanese fishermen treat fish knowing it will most likely be eaten raw. They cut behind the gills to bleed sashimi fish and ice it while still on the sea, while American fishermen wait until they dock. But for some reason, the Hokkaido crab is sold frozen (thus watery) and the live kegani (hairy crab) that occasionally surface in the market are packed in sawdust, thus tasteless (and expensive). Needless to say, we don’t buy either. I’ve never cared for the oysters here, but perhaps have never had the right ones. In truth, the oysters are usually sold for cooking (not eating raw), so have a slightly unpleasant acrid taste. Not really my thing, though Christopher and Tadaaki seem to like them.
Last year when I took the little SSU! kids to California, I bought some live crabs and boiled them up at my brother’s house (where Christopher was staying). We invited three of Christopher’s high school pals. None of them had ever seen a live crab. None. They picked a bit at the crabmeat and pushed it around the plate, but ate a lot of Acme baguette. In contrast, the SSU! kids couldn’t get enough, and when this year’s trip was set, Kyo immediately piped up, “I want crab!”
So crab it was, and the venue: Marcus’ house. Marcus always generously offers his kitchen for my use (not without plenty of kibitzing) and graciously hosts the whole gaggle of us every year. He tends to stick the kids in the back room to watch videos, but there’s no complaining. Adults are a boring lot, anyway.
What’s the big fuss about getting live crabs, when Cook’s will happily boil them to order and perform the messy cleaning and cracking operation (imagine bits of shell and crab juice flying around)? First, let’s go back to the boiling and cleaning. What all is involved here? You must grasp the crabs firmly and confidently (gingerly doesn’t cut it), while keeping your hand out of claw’s way and then heartlessly throw the wriggling guy into a pot of boiling salt water. Quickly grab another and another, until they’re all in the pot. Slam on the top and wait for the water to come back to a boil. Cook’s recommends another 13 minutes after that, but you must factor in the water to crab ratio and adjust. If your crabs are crowded in the pot, it will take longer to reach a boil, so I cut the boiling time down. It’s all about common sense.
Dump the pot of boiling water and crabs into your kitchen sink. Cool with cold water. Snag a crab and pull of his back, then scrape out the gills. But don’t stop there. Pull out a spoon from a nearby drawer and spoon up the rusty orange creamy substance adhering to the shell. It will be pleasantly salty from the water, wildly pungent and incredibly delicious. (Did you know that “delicious” is on the food writers’ no-no list? How can we just “x” out a word from our vocabulary? Good thing I’m not a “food writer.”) So what is this orangey stuff? Crab guts. Try them. Please. If you’re feeling timid, you could splash in a bit of nice Japanese sake to help wash it down. Yum. (oops another no-no word)
We boil the crabs ourselves for those warmly glorious guts, though I like the Japanese word better. Miso. So much more respectful and reflective of the texture and taste itself. And though we can get wood fire-grilled crab these days at Camino—pretty unforgettable, by the way—we’ll still be looking around for a kitchen to boil the crabs from Cook’s, because it’s the crab miso that haunts us.
I remember not liking sea urchin when I first started eating sushi. No more. Natto? Forget it, those drippy, icky beans smelled and looked disgusting. Now I love it. But what captivates me most about Japanese food is the range of tastes: from elegantly subtle to out-of-control-funky-fermented (takuan, natto and yes, crab miso come to mind). And in many ways, I see this elegant/funky combination reflected in the Japanese people and culture. And I guess that’s what attracts me to this country. The contrasts.
When my father was alive, we stayed at his house, and his wife (an inspired cook) would always make the hour drive to Cook’s to pick up live crabs for dinner. And she’d get extra for her signature crab cakes the next day. I’m a creature of habit who tends to fall back on Chez Panisse recipes. And I don’t have crab in Japan, so make cod cakes. But, you probably have crabs. The basic method from Chez Panisse Cooking for Crab Cakes: Dice 8 oz. fresh cod and toss with 1 lb. fresh crab meat (picked from 2 Dungeness crabs). Fold in homemade mayonnaise made from 1 egg yolk & 90 cc top quality mild oil (rapeseed, canola, peanut…). I never make mayonnaise without a squeeze of lemon juice & a dab of Dijon mustard to help it set, so while Paul Bertolli doesn’t include that in the recipe, I do. Lightly mix in ½ cup thinly sliced green onion (both white & green part), zest of ½ a lemon (or so), ½ tsp. salt, ¼ tsp. cayenne and 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice (adjust amount if you added it to the mayonnaise). Make 12 patties (about 2 oz each), roll in fresh bread crumbs, then fry in clarified butter over medium-high heat.