The Dungeness are back.
After last year's unprecedented shutdown of the Bay Area Dungeness crab season due to a toxic algae bloom, fishermen, chefs and consumers alike are enjoying access to the local favorite once again.
The recreational season opened in early November and the commercial season last week. And it couldn't come at a better time, with crab taking a starring role on many holiday dinner menus.
Though there are still warnings out about consuming the innards of Dungeness crab caught in a few areas of the coast, it's a huge improvement from last year's washout of a season, which left consumers missing the local delicacy and many fishermen struggling economically.
"It created a whole interruption in the economy and lifestyle and livelihoods," said Pietro Parravano, a Half Moon Bay fisherman who has long sold seafood at the downtown Palo Alto and Menlo Park farmers markets. Parravano is president of the Institute for Fisheries Resources and also serves as treasurer for the San Mateo County Harbor District Board of Harbor Commissioners.
Ian Cole, a Palo Alto native and co-founder of Ocean2Table, a community supported fishery that sells local, sustainable seafood through a subscription service, said last year's season reminded many fishermen that they are not only at the "whim of mother nature," but of the devastating impact of increasing climatic changes, from change in populations and sinking ocean conditions to the algae bloom.
"Last year was really quite a shocker," he said.
Cole said for many local fishermen, crab is their most important revenue source. And while the Dungeness is back this year, the season is not in full force, he said. The going has been "rough" anywhere south of the Farrallon Islands, off the coast of San Francisco, he said. Portions of the coast are still closed due to elevated levels of domoic acid, the naturally occurring toxin that can accumulate in shellfish and poses a health risk if consumed.
"There's just not a lot of crab," Cole said.
Parravano, however, is optimistic. He said both the demand and the supply have been strong this year.
"I think it really galvanized the community, with the chefs, the restaurants and the media ... getting people ready for this year," he said. "Get ready for the crabs; it's time."
To mark the start of the new season, the Weekly talked with local fishmongers about their favorite ways to eat crab at home, from dipped in butter and lemon to slathered on toast with garlic and melted cheese.
Most say you don't have to do much to crab to enjoy it.
"Crab speaks for itself," said Parravano, who prefers to either eat the crab plain or marinate it.
To make marinated crab, he said that after an initial boil, he cooks the crab for about 12 or 13 minutes, cracks it and marinates it with a mix of olive oil, garlic and lemon juice.
Parravano said he recently started using the leftover shells to make stock. Boil the shells for about 30 minutes, strain everything through a sieve and use the liquid to make soup, rice or cook vegetables in it, he said. He uses it as a soup base with vegetables, beans and rock fish or calamari.
Like many Bay Area residents, crab is a staple on Parravano's Thanksgiving table. His family typically makes ravioli stuffed with crab meat, Parmesan cheese, garlic and parsley, he said. Making pasta is an involved process, but it's a fun family activity during the holidays, said Parravano, who enlists an assembly line of younger family members to help.
Cole of Ocean2Table prefers garlic toast with crab.
He typically steams the crab in salted water (add other spices if you like, he said). Then, he toasts sourdough bread slices topped with garlic, adds a mix of cheeses (cheddar, Parmesan and asiago) and the crab meat. Broil it quickly "so the cheese melts and crab warms up nicely," he said.
Another seasonal favorite is using wild mushrooms to make a pasta. Chanterelles and porcinis are in season at the same time of year, so he sautés them with white wine, olive oil, garlic and Italian parsley. Add crab to the mushroom pasta dish and top with Parmesan cheese.
Kirk and Camilla Lombard, the husband-and-wife team behind seafood subscription service Sea Forager, which delivers locally, said they have been "up to our elbows in crab and haven't gotten sick of it yet."
They like to steam their crab (tip: they remove the guts beforehand so the house doesn't smell like an "industrial crab boiler") and then eat it with melted butter, a crusty loaf of sourdough bread and a side salad.
Patrick Guyer of One Ocean Seafood, the Portola Valley Farmers' Market's regular seafood vendor, is another subscriber to the "less is more" philosophy. He goes for melted butter and lemon or Vince's Seafood Cocktail Sauce with his crab, he said.
Unsurprisingly, all of the fisherman made a pitch for buying crab locally rather than at grocery stores, particular in light of last year's season. Cole, who worked for the National Marine Fisheries Service before starting Ocean2Table, said local ports in Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Monterey and elsewhere have been hurting in the last decade due to regulation and climate change. Grocery stores often ship crab from the farther flung parts of Northern California, Oregon, Washington or even Canada, he said.
"It's more important than ever to really make sure that you're sourcing your fish locally, or at least know where it's coming from," Cole said.
The one silver lining from last year's dark cloud of a crab season, Parravano said, was that many consumers became more informed about the local fishing economy and food supply chain. This year, Dungeness crab enthusiasts have a little more appreciation for the local delicacy.
"They're here and it's time to be festive and appreciative of another product that we're so blessed to have throughout the coast," he said.
Where to find these vendors:
Menlo Park Farmers Market: Santa Cruz and Menlo avenues; Sundays, year-round, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; localharvest.org
Downtown Palo Alto Farmers Market: Gilman Street and Hamilton Avenue; Saturdays through Dec. 17, 8 a.m. to noon; pafarmersmarket.org
Ocean2Table: Pickup locations in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Los Altos. Go to getocean2table.com.
One Ocean Seafood: At the Portola Valley Farmers' Market, 765 Portola Road; Thursdays, 2-5 p.m. (winter hours); oneoceanseafood.com
Sea Forager: Pickup locations in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View and Redwood City. Go to seaforager.com.