Crustacean Celebration: Dungeness Crab Mac'n'Cheese, Anyone?

Most cookbooks are divided into categories. Some go with the "meat, vegetables, seafood" format where recipes are slotted by main ingredient. Others divvy them up by course: appetizers, entrées, desserts, etc. I even have one that has separated the recipes into occasions, like picnics, parties, casual dinners and, of course, formal dinners. The pages of that last section, by the way, are as pristine as the day it was bought at a garage sale, giving you an idea of how useful its various owners have found it.

But I propose a different way to categorize a cookbook, and that's by how you feel. Happy? Make some small plates of your favorite foods, including simple salads and desserts. Depressed? You could indulge in a big ol' chocolate cake by yourself, or treat your mood with lots of fish and kale for their Omega 3s and anti-oxidants.

Then there's sinful, which I'm sure someone has done already and titled "Food for Lovers" or some such, full of unctuous (good word for that category, right?), creamy, rich or sweet flavors that beg to be licked off the plate or some other surface—but we'll stop there.

A perfect food for that category, though one I doubt would normally be thought of, is crab. It's certainly rich and has a delicate sweetness on its own…think whole pieces of leg or joint eaten right out of the shell. But it takes on a whole different personality when folded into a creamy sauce or warmed in a bisque, its sweet character enhancing the lushness of the dish and the warm meat melting when it hits your tongue.

Which is why, when I saw that cooked whole crabs had hit a ridiculously low price per pound, and knowing that early season crab is the sweetest, I bought two and fantasized about using it in macaroni and cheese. While I was only planning on using the meat from one of them for the casserole, the price and my lack of inhibitions made me throw the meat from both into the noodles and sauce just before I slid it into the oven, and it was so worth it.

This recipe would be terrific for a special dinner, served in individual ramekins which, depending on your mood and the setting—say, in front of the fire on a lambskin rug?—could make for a memorable evening. Champagne, anyone?

Dungeness Crab Macaroni and Cheese

1 lb. dried pasta (penne or cavatappi are my faves)
4 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
2 c. whole milk (or 1 c. cream or half-and-half plus 1 c. milk)
1/2 lb. extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
8 oz. cream cheese or sour cream
1/2 tsp. hot pepper sauce (I use my homemade chile sauce)
Salt and pepper to taste
Meat from 1-2 crabs

Preheat the oven to 350°.

Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. While water is heating, melt butter in a medium saucepan. Remove from burner and add flour, stirring to combine until there are no lumps remaining. Return to burner and cook on low heat for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly. Increase heat to medium and add milk (or milk and cream) and stir until it thickened. Then add cheese in handfuls, stirring each in until they're melted. Add cream cheese and stir until sauce is thick and creamy, then add hot sauce with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to keep sauce warm until pasta is done, stirring occasionally.

Add pasta to boiling water and cook till al dente or a little less. Drain and put back in pasta pot, pour cheese sauce and crab meat over tthe top and fold in briefly to combine, keeping crab from breaking up too much. Pour into baking dish. Bake for 30 minutes.

Crab for Christmas and Three Recipes to Help You Celebrate!

For the first time in several years, Dungeness crab season will open for Oregon's coastal crabbers on December 16th, in time for what could be a banner year for the state's fleet of 424 mostly individual family-owned boats. Delayed twice already due to insufficient amounts of meat in the crabs tested—crabbers were hoping for a December 1 opener—the go-ahead from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) was given for the coast from the border with California to Cape Foulweather (midway between Lincoln City and Newport).

A crab opening before Christmas can make a huge difference
to Oregon's Dungeness fleet.

Asked what it will mean to the fleet to have Dungeness season open this early, Rick Goché of Sacred Sea Tuna and captain of the fishing vessel Peso II, didn't mince words.

"After a summer when there was no salmon fishing, a poor tuna seaon and a shrimp season that saw the lowest prices in more than a decade, a crab opening before Christmas can make a huge difference," he said. "For many in the fleet, savings are gone, bills are late, and finances are dire. It's a hard thing to try explaining to young children why Christmas presents are few."

"A start before Christmas can change all that," Goché said. "Additionally, a pre-Christmas start tends to support a higher starting price, since consumers are more likely to inlude crab in their seasonal celebrations."

Good news for the Oregon fleet is, at least temporarily, bad news for California and Washington's crabbing industry. California's Dungeness season will be delayed until at least December 21 due to the large number of migrating humpback whales that regulators worry could get entangled in fishing gear. The delay for the North Oregon coast and Washington state is to allow crabs to develop better "fill" or meat yield, which should be resolved by the end of December, hopefully in time for New Year's celebrations.

Assuming the catch is plentiful, there should be a good supply of Dungeness crab available for holiday gatherings. I know I'll be thinking of those Oregon fishing families Rick talked about as I buy my crab this year, hoping their holidays are bountiful.

Hot artichoke and Dungeness crab dipHot Artichoke and Crab Dip

Adapted from New Seasons Market

1 14-oz. can artichoke hearts
1/4 c. capers
6 oz. crab meat (fresh is better and cheaper if you buy a whole crab and crack it yourself)
1 c. parmesan, finely grated
1 c. mayonnaise
6 crackers, crushed, or Panko (optional)

Drain and chop artichokes. If using canned crab, drain well. Crush crackers to fine crumbs with a rolling pin. Combine crab with artichokes, capers, cheese and mayonnaise. Sprinkle with crushed crackers or Panko. Put in baking dish and bake for at least 20 minutes at 350°. When slightly browned and bubbly, serve with your favorite crackers, baguette slices or tortilla chips. (Also makes a great stuffing for salmon fillet or chicken breast.)

Dungeness crab crostiniCrab Crostini

1 baguette, sliced into 1/4" slices
Olive oil
1 crab, cooked and the meat removed (or 1 lb. crab meat)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. capers (optional)

Spread baguette slices on cookie sheet, brush one side with olive oil and toast under broiler. Turn over and toast other side. (Don't get distracted! I've burned many a sheet pan of bread by turning away.)

Put crab meat in a medium sized mixing bowl and add olive oil, lemon juice, parsley and capers (if desired). Mix lightly and season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon onto toasted bread slices, arrange on platter and serve.

Dungeness crab cakesMichel's Thai-ish Crab Cakes

Yield: 15-18 small crab cakes

For the crab cakes:
Meat of two Dungeness crabs
1/2 red bell pepper, minced
1/4 c. minced red or green onion
1 serrano pepper, finely minced
2-4 Tbsp. cilantro, minced
1/4 c. bread crumbs
1/4 c. grated parmesan
Zest of 1 lime
1/2-1 tsp. fish sauce, to taste
Juice of 1 lime
1 egg
Optional: Grated coconut, fresh mint or basil

Crumb coating:
1 c. bread crumbs, preferably Panko style
1/4 c. grated parmesan

Line a baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper.

Combine crab meat, chopped pepper, onions, cilantro, bread crumbs, parmesan, lime zest and fish sauce. Whisk together lime juice and egg and stir into crab mixture.

Combine bread crumbs and parmesan and spread out on a plate or pie tin.

Scoop up about 1/4 cup of crab mixture and form into a plump cake about 2-inches in diameter (approx. 1” high). With your hands, compress the cake so it holds together. Gently place cake in the crumb mixture to coat bottom and sprinkle crumbs over top to coat (don’t flip the cake or it will fall apart). Gently compress cake between your hands to meld crumbs to the crab cake. (Keep cake plump; don’t flatten.)

Set each formed cake on lined baking sheet. When all cakes are formed, place sheet in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes.

Heat large sauté pan or griddle to medium-high heat and add olive oil, butter or mixture of both to generously coat pan. Gently place cakes in pan or on griddle, leaving plenty of room to turn them. Cook until golden brown and turn gently to brown other side, adding more oil or butter if needed. If cooking cakes in stages, keep cakes warm in oven until ready to serve.

Top photo from the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission website.